As anyone who follows pop knows, makeovers are not restricted to reality TV — think U2 going electronic, Phantom Planet punking out, or Rod Stewart morphing into a pre-rock-era balladeer. Rarely do such career-rebooting Extreme Rock Star Makeover overhauls turn out to be good moves, but such is the case with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
To all but alt-rock aficionados, the Austin band’s conspicuously long name may not ring many bells. On their first three albums, Trail of Dead were the preeminent recyclers of their genre, recalling at various times Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Afghan Whigs, and a host of other guitar-noise icons. The band did a superb job of synthesizing these influences — the majestic title song of their last disc, 2002’s Source Tags & Codes, demonstrated that — yet the effect still felt secondhand, an homage far less provocative than their slasher-flick-evoking moniker.
In one of 2005’s first surprises, Worlds Apart represents the work of an audibly refurbished band. Their punk and indie roots still very much in evidence, the trio continue to rush breathlessly into each song, the blood vessels in their necks bursting as they hit each power chord and snare drum. But the separation-of-instruments clarity and punchier dynamics that propel each song owe more to the Who, as if it had suddenly dawned on Trail of Dead that there was no shame in shedding their indie-rock cloak and acting as if it were their time to try to conquer the world.
The reason for their newfound power may be simple: They’ve never sounded so incensed. In songs that take a turn toward the biting and political, Trail of Dead aim rocket launchers at America’s obsession with celebrity and money (the title track), the cynicism around them (the first single ”And the Rest Will Follow”), and the sad fate of Michael Jackson (”The Best,” one of the disc’s few unwieldy tracks). They even lash out at their own apathy (”Classic Arts Showcase,” in which singer-guitarist Conrad Keely wonders if he should bother to get up and answer ”a friend’s depressed call” or just continue watching TV). Energized rather than enervated, the band turns these well-worked punk topics into robust, unapologetically anthemic rock & roll. Even ”Let It Dive,” a bittersweet farewell to a dead relationship, is so propulsive it almost comes off like an upbeat love song.
Trail of Dead pepper the disc with a few stylistic detours: an ode to nightlife excesses that re-creates ’70s glam, an ennui-drenched ballad about ambivalent old memories, and the requisite-for-them exotic instrumental. But it’s the band’s newly sharpened knives that cut deepest. Fitting for an album released in January, Worlds Apart rings out the old band and rings in a new one.