Aural Pleasure

So Divided
... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
It’s hard to think of a contemporary rock band that divides intelligent people as sharply as the Austin quartet …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. The ultimate love-’em-or-hate-’em band of our time, Trail of Dead must deal not only with the slings of critics annoyed by their unabashed sonic (and conceptual) grandiosity, but with the disappointment of early admirers who feel betrayed by the group’s last two albums.

Given the band’s polarizing impact, it’s appropriate, if coincidental, that Trail of Dead named their latest album, So Divided. In an era when My Chemical Romance is worshiped by the masses for combining goth brooding with classic-rock bombast, Trail of Dead should be MTV darlings. But unlike My Chemical Romance, their pretensions aren’t comic-book goofy, they’re abrasive and agitated, with a transparent derision for the popular culture they’re trying to reach.  

This band built its reputation on pulverizing live performances, and its early releases came close to capturing that ferocity. But 2005’s outlandish song cycle, Worlds Apart, and So Divided have replaced the raw power with dense, multi-hued textures. In its own way, Trail of Dead’s transformation is a bit like the Clash making the leap from their eponymous debut album to Sandinista in a little more than three years.

What’s remarkable is how often Trail of Dead leader Conrad Keely’s odd tangents result in something great. For example, “Wasted State of Mind” is about mental dislocation, and its sound is immediately disorienting, with rolling percussion and a repetitive piano figure that sounds like Fiona Apple’s “Not About Love” played at double speed. “Naked Sun” is a pounding swamp blues that gives way to a pure-pop chorus before being hijacked by a rude convoy of blaring horns, and ends with a long symphonic coda. It should be a disaster, but it works to perfection. The group plays it straight only on a reverent cover of Guided By Voices’ “Gold Hearted Mountain Top Queen Directory,” and even then you’re waiting for the next mellotron to drop.  

Keely doesn’t necessarily make you care about his obsessions, and some of his kitchen-sink epics would benefit from trimming. But this is an album brimming with ideas and invention, from a band that accepts no one else’s limitations. In other words, it’s a modern-rock rarity.

— Gilbert Garcia

Robert Randolph & the Family Band
(Warner Bros.)

Three albums in, sacred-steel virtuoso Robert Randolph decided to release a set of songs in a more structured style.

Colorblind still has the great, wailing pedal-steel riffs that helped Randolph make his name, but there are none of the exuberant, seven-minute solos found on his previous work and in his live shows. Instead, Randolph focuses on hooks, pulling from gospel, soul, blues, rock, and, of course, funk (perhaps even more funk than before), borrowing the talents of vocalist Leela James, Dave Matthews and DMB saxophonist Leroi Moore, and Eric Clapton (on a crackling cover of “Jesus is Just Alright”) to add to his pop appeal.

Randolph and his band sound fantastic, with tight, complicated grooves that show off their respective gifts. But they also seem a little too concerned with pleasing a larger audience, one that may not be willing to listen through the winding, somewhat-less-exuberant-than-before guitar solos and popping bass lines.

It’s not like Randolph & Co. sold out. But Colorblind is a significant compositional departure from the guitarist’s first two albums, both of which concentrated primarily on the music, with the vocals a secondary consideration. It’s still a lot of fun, though, and for Randolph, that’s always been the most important thing.

— Marisa Brown