Here’s a selection of photos that I took during Day 2 of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Click past the jump for photos of Belle & Sebastian, Solange, The Breeders, Savages, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Phosphorescent, Ryan Hemsworth, Parquet Courts and Metz. Check out more photos, day-by-day recaps, and a whole lot of other stuff related to the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival by clicking here.
Tag: and you will know us by the trail of dead
It always bothers me when things don’t work out according to plan, and the start/end to my Saturday at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival was one of those times. In what was supposed to be an early arrival to catch sets from White Lung, Pissed Jeans and Julia Holter, bad traffic turned a short drive into an extraordinarily long one. Thank goodness I finally made it in time for Phosphorescent. Then of course there was the weather. On checking the weekend forecast on Friday afternoon shortly before heading out on Day 1, it said a chance of severe storms on Friday night, then partly cloudy for the rest of the weekend. All was going according to plan until about 9 p.m. on Saturday when it started to pour. Of course it would. Let’s hope the park stays dry enough for Sunday that there’s not mud/sand pits everywhere like last year. As for the music itself, most everything on Saturday was an improvement over the somewhat shaky or mediocre sets on Friday. Let me break things down for you, band by band.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead aren’t an ambitious band. They are beyond ambitious, and often to a fault. Ten years ago, they were unfortunate enough to be cursed with an almighty 10.0 on Pitchfork’s richter scale, and they’ve always seemed like a band still trying to recover from that madness. Being told you’ve crafted a perfect work of musical art is enough to make any artist lose his or her mind, because that little voice inside your head essentially teases you with the idea that maybe you can maintain the impossibly high standard you’ve established for yourself. The reality is, you’ve got to keep pressing on like it never happened, and hope that the lightning in a bottle once again shows up at your doorstep. Unfortunately for Trail of Dead, they felt like the next logical step was to take their sound bigger and more robust than ever before. It led to two gluttonous major label efforts, Worlds Apart and So Divided, that left long-time fans feeling like they were standing on the wrong side of the gulf those two titles implied. Those were the days of such sharp backlash and disappointment it sent the band soaring downward in a shame spiral one might never expect them to recover from. After a bunch of in-fighting and stripping down the lineup to just the four core members, 2011’s Tao of the Dead was the start of a real recovery for the boys. They continued to defy expectations with that record, creating a conceptual premise built on two seamless parts that were recorded only in the keys of D and F. In spite of how gimmicky it looked on paper, the record’s pure rock drive and generally shorter songs were a blessing in disguise showing how far they’d climbed back up from a low point just a few years earlier.
Now about a year and a half later comes Lost Songs, a straightforward, pure Trail of Dead rock record the likes of which they haven’t done in 10 years. The high-minded concepts are gone, as is pretty much any song that clocks in at over five minutes in length. If you go strictly by the standard edition of this album, it’s the band’s shortest since their 1998 self-titled debut. Even the cover art, unlike the intense and complicated pieces created by frontman Conrad Keely in the past, is black and white simplicity showing four silhouettes standing in the middle of a desolate town. This is about as basic as the band can get both musically and stylistically, which is why they’re practically hardcore punk once you clear all the debris away. The energy and intensity hits you immediately with “Open Doors,” then refuses to let up or give you a true breather until “Awestruck” arrives 10 tracks in. This heavy punch to the gut almost starts to wear thin after about 30 minutes, but Trail of Dead’s ingenuity and ability to showcase the quiet instrumental builds to explosive finales serves them particularly well here, leaving you satisfied even as you know what curveball is waiting around the corner. Songs like “Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” are invigorating in exactly the ways they need to be early on. It’s also extremely pleasing to hear Jason Reece get behind the microphone again a few times on this album, as he’s been largely stuck behind the drum kit the last couple records. He’s a larger than life sort of guy, throwing himself fully into whatever he does. It’s the main reason why the percussion is so strong on this record, and why the songs featuring Reece’s vocals are some of the album’s biggest standouts. “Catatonic” in particular feels like a special moment for him, to the point where you can almost hear a stage dive built into it.
But Trail of Dead want Lost Songs to be about more than just a forceful collection of rock songs. They have every intention of using their power as musicians to consistently challenge both themselves and their audience, which is why much of the new album revolves around world politics. This isn’t the same sort of politics that the new Local H record is about, though. On a much closer level they’re trying to take up the mantle left behind by a band like Rage Against the Machine. The goal seems to be less of a commentary on our leaders and more of an effort to cure social injustices. The band dedicated their single “Up to Infinity” to Pussy Riot, even though the song was written about the Syrian Civil War. On “Pinhole Cameras” they empathize with those that appear to be “starving, living in this land of plenty.” In other parts of the record they spit venom at despots and try to slap people out of comas of ignorance to serious world issues. Heroic though these efforts might be, and as much as it fills a void in the current music climate, it’s unlikely to truly spark a revolution. You’ve got to give them credit for trying though, and if that’s what fueled the post-hardcore aesthetic of this album, so much the better. Trail of Dead have reclaimed the spark they lost many years ago. In the best sense, that makes this record full of found songs, for they are lost no more.
Every year around the start of July, it becomes abundantly clear via the calendar that we’ve hit the halfway point. Six out of twelve months have passed, and given that amount of time it feels appropriate to look back briefly on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the music we’ve heard thus far. Rather than approach it in a typical “Best Albums” format (no hints as to the “master list” that will emerge in December), I like to instead examine the first half of the year in terms of “surprising” and “disappointing” albums. The differentiation between the two isn’t as simple as good and bad or black and white. There are records on the Surprising Albums list that won’t show up at year’s end as the “Best of” anything, and by that same token, just because a record winds up on the Disappointing Albums list doesn’t mean it’s destined for the bargain bin. In order to achieve the designation of being “surprising”, a record simply needs to blow my expectations out of the water. You turn it on expecting a total crapfest and wind up with something that at the very least leaves you moderately satisfied. A strange turn of events towards the positive side of the spectrum. Opposing that, those albums designated “disappointing” earn that label by building expectations prior to its release and then failing to meet them. Everyone WANTED to like the fourth Indiana Jones movie of the 3 “Star Wars” prequels, but in the end it was letdown city. You earn a reputation for greatness and then slip up for whatever reason. So as to avoid any sort of confusion or suggestion that any list is ordered in such a way that these albums are ranked, I’ve arranged each list to be alphabetical by artist. If you like, feel free to also click onto the links provided to read my original reviews of the albums on these two lists. Today we’ll tackle my list of “5 Surprising Albums” and tomorrow will top it off with “5 Disappointing Albums”. I hope you have fun and enjoy these lists, and by all means feel free to let me know what some of your most surprising and disappointing albums from the first half of the year are in the comments section.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – Tao of the Dead (Original Review)
Creating an album that many deem to be “perfect” is more of a curse than it is a blessing. Yes, you’ll achieve something not many others can lay claim to, but the weight of that success will likely crush you and ultimately handicap you for the rest of your career. Such is the case with …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a band whose 2002 album “Source Tags and Codes” remains one of the highlights from the last decade yet continues to be relatively underappreciated in this day and age. Perhaps that’s because it was followed by three albums that pushed really hard to recreate or expand upon the sound that won millions over; all of which failed miserably. Eventually dropped from their major label contract, Trail of Dead continued to push onwards via their own record label, and that along with some fiercely negative reviews caused them to step backwards and take stock of where they were at musically. They pared down to a four piece and with that came a much more stable, stripped down sound that still rocked pretty hard. The high concepts remain though, and they crafted their new album “Tao of the Dead” to be heard as two separate suites, each recorded in a different key. There may be dividers between the tracks, but the record is intended to be heard in a single sitting, and if you take it as such it serves as a reminder that this band is able to do great things when they’re not trying so damn hard. It may have taken them almost 10 years to do it, but it’s starting to seem like the ghost of perfection that has haunted the band is beginning to fade away and the boys might finally be able to reclaim some of the spotlight that was once lost. Buy it from Amazon
Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Original Review)
To call Cake “innovative” is to mislabel them. Charming though many of their songs may be, it would appear that longevity is not in their nature. Yet next year they’ll be celebrating their 20th anniversary of being together and allowing John McCrea to constantly sing-speak so many of his lyrics. In that massive amount of time, Cake has only released 6 albums. There was a 7 year gap between their last album “Pressure Chief” and their new one “Showroom of Compassion”, and with the former being such a bland effort on their part, the long wait was probably warranted. They needed the time to remember exactly who they were and why they should continue to make music. Raise your hand if you pretty much forgot that Cake even existed until you heard they had a new record coming out. Spend too much time away, and people will forget about you because there’s so many other musical options available to them. Anyways, “Showroom of Compassion” was like a big welcome back hug from an old friend that you had lost touch with a long time ago. The songs were much stronger than they had been in the last decade, and there were even small signs of sonic progression, with the band incorporating some new instruments and song structures into the fold. On 1996’s “Fashion Nugget”, Cake famously (and ironically) covered Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. With “Showroom of Compassion”, it certainly appears that they will continue to do so for a little while longer. Buy it from Amazon
Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (Original Review)
Unlike Cake, Foo Fighers didn’t take a long time away from the spotlight before returning. Still, they did wait four years between their last album “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace” and this new one “Wasting Light”, which was the longest gap in the band’s 16 year history. With all their powerhouse singles though, it was never tough to keep Foo Fighters at the front of your brain, and Dave Grohl’s constant presence in playing with other bands (see: Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age, among others) kept you guessing about where he’d turn up next. But the Foo Fighters themselves had been suffering a serious slump as of the last 10 or so years despite their moderately successful singles output. There was the rather plain “One By One”, the double album electric-acoustic missteps of “In Your Honor”, an attempt to create something as classic as Nirvana’s “Unplugged” session via the live acoustic jaunt “Skin & Bones”, and finally a painful attempt at pandering to the lowest common demoninator courtesy of the pathetic “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”. In other words, it was really easy to assume “Wasting Light” would continue the downward trend the band has been on these last few records. Instead, they pulled out all the stops: Butch Vig produced the record and worked with Grohl for the first time since Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic guested on one track, and Grohl built an old school recording studio in his garage. The plan worked, and the new record marks an amazing comeback for a band that appeared to be all but lost. When Grohl screams “I never wanna die” on the album’s closing track “Walk”, he sounds like he means it: Foo Fighters haven’t sounded this alive in a long time. Buy it from Amazon
PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Original Review)
Polly Jean Harvey has always been a tough nut to crack. Her early career played off the “tortured soul” card, and while she was a little more offbeat than her counterparts like Fiona Apple and Courtney Love in the early 90s, the grungy electric guitars and dark lyrics weren’t entirely uncommon. Her evolution since then has been nothing short of fascinating, and perhaps her oddest move came on 2007’s “White Chalk” in which she put down her guitar in favor of an autoharp and piano. The whole thing had a very Victorian Gothic aire to it, only pushed farther courtesy of some increasingly antiquated outfit choices. Her collaboration with John Parish via “A Man A Woman Walked By” was a small return to normalcy for her, though it’s doubtful that the word “normal” has been used much when describing any of her records. The point being that PJ Harvey is often indefinable by nature, consistent only in how she continues to switch things up and challenge herself. “Let England Shake” is another one of those moments, and this time it’s in the form of a concept record detailing the horrors of war. Harvey’s newly expanded instrumental palette serves her well here, and in a way combines some elements from her harsher electric guitar past and her much more delicate and beautiful varied approach of the more present day. In one sense, each new PJ Harvey record is a surprise, because you’re never sure what to expect as she tends to not repeat herself. What wasn’t expected was how carefully and smartly written and composed this album would be, and how after the last few albums of shots that never fully reached the heights of her past glories, here finally is an album that returns her to that force of nature state. She’s come full circle without ever really returning to where she started. Buy it from Amazon
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l (Original Review)
Hate is a strong word, but I’m by no means hesitant to use it when referencing the first tUnE-yArDs record “BiRd-BrAiNs”. The project of Merrill Garbus, she recorded that debut album via a crappy built-in laptop microphone and mixed it with some freeware program she downloaded. It sounded exactly like that, and was primarily the reason why I couldn’t stand listening to it. I don’t expect full audio fidelity these days, particularly with the rebirth of lo-fi a couple years back, but there comes a point where the bottom of the barrel gets scraped and that was it for me. Still, for those able to look past the sonic issues with “BiRd-BrAiNs”, it was the introduction of a major new talent, a woman with a powerful voice and smart lyrics who used live shows as her true proving ground. For her second album “w h o k i l l”, Garbus actually made it into a legitimate recording studio and had some backing musicians to help her out. Free and clear of any audio quality issues, I felt that revisiting tUnE-yArDs was the wise thing to do. Turns out it was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far this year. The way the songs on “w h o k i l l” are developed and layered with so many instrumental quirks and matched next to that incredible voice is like a sonic punch to the face. It’s innovative and exciting and catchy and pretty much indescribable genre-wise. Most importantly, it’s everything that debut album was not, or rather, it exposes everything that debut album kept hidden courtesy of a shoddy microphone. Buy it from Amazon
MP3: tUnE-yArDs – Bizness
It really doesn’t seem like it, but …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have been around for 16 years. In that time there’s been 7 albums and a few EPs, and the progression of the band is pretty well charted by all those releases. They began as punk rock upstarts with a flair for the dramatic and hints of prog-rock influences. By the time their third album “Source Tags and Codes” came around in 2002, the band had developed their sound to the point where many of the tracks blended into one another or were connected by brief orchestral interludes, truly taking on a life of their own. That was one hell of an epic record, and one of the chosen few to receive a coveted 10.0 rating on Pitchfork and deservedly so. It was that sort of brilliance combined with the band’s intense live shows that often ended with everything on stage getting completely obliterated (instruments included) that really earned the band their name and reputation. Everything they’ve done since then has fallen somewhere between searching for a new way to advance the band’s sound to trying to reclaim the magic of that singular perfect record. The kind of pressure such lofty expectations must have put on the band had to be monumental, and Trail of Dead essentially retreated from the spotlight. Intra-band fights ensued, as did critical slammings and tension with their label. In 2007 they left Interscope Records after citing “lack of support” and instead decided to release new music under their own label, Richter Scale. It’s been just about 2 years since their last album, “The Century of Self”, which saw them slowly crawling their way back towards the top with their new found freedom. They were more creatively electrified than they had been in years, and it was quite evident upon listening to that still epic of markedly adventuresome record. Now in a much healthier place, Trail of Dead return with “Tao of the Dead”, their wildest and most ambitious project to date.
At a time in which the single is more popular than ever and the existence of the full length album is consistently being threatened, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have crafted a record that practically demands to be heard from start to finish. “Tao of the Dead” is actually divided into two separate parts. Part I spans 11 tracks and 36 minutes and was recorded entirely in the key of D. Part II is titled “Strange News From Another Planet” and is five separate movements contained within a single 16.5 minute track, recorded entirely in the key of F. Yeah, it’s some high concept shit, though at least they’re not aiming to tell some long-winded story via the lyrics. No, the intention is just to compose two long-form pieces of music that perfectly blend together compositionally. Conrad Keeley cited records like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Rush’s “Hemispheres” as direct influences when coming up with “Tao of the Dead”. Doubtless that he’s hoping this new album will be as warmly received and as legendary as those. On that note, there’s some good news and some bad news.
The bad news first, there’s no way “Tao of the Dead” will go down as a landmark album. While that primarily has to do with the challenges the album format presents in this day and age, even if this were the 60s, 70s or 80s where such attempts would be more admirable, one gets the feeling that this record wouldn’t quite succeed at the desired level. What’s really a shame is that it actually comes somewhat close to achieving such a lofty goal. The gigantic, epic-as-fuck landscape is already laid out for them on a platter as it’s a sound they’ve been trying out the last several years with mixed results, with the problems mostly coming from the band trying to take themselves far too seriously. Trail of Dead have always sounded best in a very loose and playful atmosphere, buttressed by the occasional Jason Reece-led punk rock quickie. Reece does pop up on vocals a time or two, though his “Days of Being Wild” tendencies are shaved down in service of the overall concept, which in and of itself is just a touch rigid and demanding. The band attempts to counteract such difficulties via the album’s lyrics and artwork, which have a very fantastical and science fiction-y quality to them. The album cover looks like a damn “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” poster, and if you buy a deluxe version there’s a graphic novel that comes with it. All of it is written and designed by proverbial band leader Conrad Keeley, who depending on the record can be as much of an asset to the group as he is a hindrance. His issues are primarily vocal, in that the band’s occasional over-reliance on his often sub-par singing has sometimes made an album worse than it should be. That’s less of an issue on “Tao of the Dead” thanks to an increased sense of atmosphere and more instrumental brute force than normal.
The good news about this record is that it does a whole lot more right than it does wrong. The band is smart to stick with pretty much the same sound they’ve been dishing out for years now, but repurposed just a touch. There’s less in the way of outright balladry and more intense/loud moments flanked by some of the band’s sharpest drum work in recent memory. And while the concept seems to take precedence over anything else this time around, the first part of the album also has its fair share of workable singles as well. “Pure Radio Cosplay” is fun and exciting and memorable to the point where it earns the 3 minute “Reprise” version several tracks later. First single “Summer of All Dead Souls” is solid, but interestingly enough not the most obvious or easiest choice in terms of marketing the record. Atmosphere plays a huge role in “Cover the Days Like A Tidal Wave”, where the melody builds and builds until it overwhelms and buries you in pure noise. “The Wasteland” is an exercise in restraint, bringing in some lighter acoustic guitars amidst the jabs of louder electric guitar moments, which is taken over by the brief “The Spiral Jetty”, complete with somber piano, electro ambiance and a defunct guitar solo. Though a song like “Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)” seems deserving of single status (it’s certain to be a crowd-pleaser at live shows), there’s something just a touch off-putting about the loudly shouted chorus of “You! Will! Pay!” in general because of how simplistic it is. Jason Reece finally reports for vocal duty on “Ebb Away”, a song that’s so triumphant that it feels like it should close out the entire movement. Instead, “The Fairlight Pendant” takes care of that, a nearly 6 minute instrumental that goes huge before going home. The keyboards go nuts, the pace accelerates to breakneck speed, and there’s some serious psychedelic/krautrock debts that are paid in full. Rather than actually feeling like a proper closer to Part I of the record, it instead does some solid work bridging the two divided halves of the album.
The 16 minute opus “Strange News From Another Planet” is the left turn where “Tao of the Dead” sails over the edge of sanity. At over 16 minutes, it’s the longest single track Trail of Dead have ever done, even if it is technically five separate songs smashed into one. Of course thanks to creative blending and the idea that the entire piece be heard as a single symphonic movement, it’s a small challenge to identify exactly where each of those five songs ends and the new ones begin. Much of it is instrumental, which actually works to the band’s benefit as they space out while going for broke. There are several time signature changes, a section of spoken word/found sound audio clips (a reference back to their early days), intense shredding guitar solos, and a brief Jason Reece vocal appearance, all amidst an ebb and flow that continually builds up, explodes and breaks down with enough force to keep things interesting for the duration. To some, it will be a grand masterpiece, a thesis statement for the entire record and a testament to the brilliance this band genuinely possesses but has failed to deliver upon since that one perfect album nine years ago. Others will view it as an agenda piece, with Trail of Dead trying so hard to create this massive epic and prove their worth that they’ll throw this incredibly long track at you with the hopes that you’ll either be impressed by the sheer ambition of it or too worn down by the end to actually come up with a valid criticism of it. Personally I fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Trail of Dead take the risk and actually do a solid job of making it work, but it does scream pompous and overblown just a bit and the extreme running time for a single track gets both taxing after awhile and a challenge to listen to unless you’re in the middle of a long car ride or have nothing better to do. At least in the first part of the album, though intended as a singular piece divided into 11 separate tracks, you can stop or pause between them should you need to.
For long-time Trail of Dead fans that have sat around moping since “Source Tags and COdes” changed their life, there’s good news for you courtesy of “Tao of the Dead”. The band you once knew and loved dearly is now closer than ever towards reclaiming the crown once placed upon their heads those many years ago. This new album really was a gambit from its creation, and the guys could just as easily have fallen on their faces as they could have emerged triumphant. Thankfully, they earn their keep for the most part by crafting a smart and well-adjusted record that’s reins in a lot of their past mistakes in favor of interesting new doorways to explore. There are a couple issues, from the intense sincerity of the material to a weak track or two, but those are more minor than most everything else. Conrad Keeley’s not-always-great vocals are used better this time as well, both by not always leaving them front-and-center in the mix or just breaking out more instrumental passages than ever before. There are still moments when he’s reaching beyond his capacity however, and that strain doesn’t help things. Still, the supporting cast in the band, now slimmed down to a mere four-piece, excels at nearly every turn and seems to prove the old adage that too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth (the argument here being that the extra members were weighing them down). “Tao of the Dead” may not go down in music history as one of the finest single-piece concept records, nor will it even be considered Trail of Dead’s most important work, but what it does do is provide legitimate hope. Hope for a band that lost the plot years ago and many were beginning to believe wouldn’t ever find it again. Everybody loves a good comeback story, and thanks to this album, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead are now poised to do just that. Now if only they’d lighten up a little bit and start smashing things on stage again.