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...AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD (Buy CDs by this artist)
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (Trance Syndicate) 1998
Madonna (Merge) 1999
Relative Ways / Homage EP (Interscope) 2001
Source Tags & Codes (Interscope) 2002
World Apart (Interscope) 2005

The four 20somethings who comprise . . .And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead play noisy art rock and drink too much. That's not a coincidence, it's a blend, in which the latter erases the pretense of the former, giving those miasmatic riffs the meathead punch they need. The band took shape in Austin, Texas, when Jason Reece and Conrad Keely (both sing, drum and play guitar) enlisted guitarist Kevin Allen and bassist Neil Busch. After that it's all been rock excess, with wanton tales of wildly destructive live shows overshadowing details of their music.

A missive from the onetime slacker capital of America (and the nominal home of the Butthole Surfers), . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead was horribly produced by Chris Smith and the band. The murky sound obscures the music's immediacy, the toms (which are very important, as Reece and Keely both rely on them heavily) muted to the point of pops in the raucous opener, "Richter Scale Madness." Yet the (presumably) involuntary lo-fi approach augments a sense of desperation that would feel forced in a cleaner environment. In "Prince With a Thousand Enemies," Trail of Dead pleads as if there's nothing to lose, and the cheap sound (reinforced by the album's awful pixelated cover) confirms it. Be it the lousy production values or the great songs, every second of . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead seems free of effort, and that makes for an engrossing album, which yearns gorgeously in "Half of What," spews vulnerable spite in "Fake Fake Eyes" and trots through the finale, "When We Begin to Steal..."

Madonna's earnest second cut, "Mistakes and Regrets," immediately displays the band's songwriting improvement. A huge guitar sound (My Bloody Valentine huge) dominates, buttressed by swift drum rolls and snare cracks. "If I could make a list / Of my mistakes and regrets / I'd put your name on top / And every line after it," Keely howls in the chorus. Unlike the debut, some tracks miss the mark — e.g., the clumsy "Blight Takes All" and a quartet of inane segues — but the standouts really shine. Reece breathlessly leads "Mark David Chapman" through thickness and sparsity, and "Aged Dolls" is as theatrical a song heard this side of Broadway ("Drip onto the tombs of the soulless / Drip onto your aorta / Drip as fiery cinder / Onto this sweltering town," it opens). More a canyon than a plateau, Madonna nevertheless satisfies.

Interscope picked up the tab for Source Tags & Codes, and unlike many major-label debuts, . . . Trail of Dead takes good advantage of the corporate ogre's capital. The album is loud yet subtle, with strings, chimes and pianos peeking out through the wall of guitars. "It Was There That I Saw You" opens Source Tags & Codes like a carpet bombing, an improbably loud burst of guitars and drums. (The production by . . . Trail of Dead and Mike McCarthy is stellar — Keely's sustained yelps are plainly audible, despite the multi-instrumental barrage.) And it never lets up: In "Another Morning Stoner," Keely's excellent vocal phrasing (an abrupt, audible inhale punctuates each line) and the snare hits are perfectly synchronized. It closes with an excellent lyric: "Why is it I don't feel the same? / Are my longings to be blamed / For not seeing heaven like you would see / Why is a song the world for me?"

The horn hook of "Baudelaire" is loaded with hit potential, and "Relative Ways" (the lead track on a four-song preview EP, which contains two numbers — "Bloodrites" and "The Blade Runer" — not on the album) has a leisurely, stuttering tempo. The album loses focus halfway through with a trio of generic cuts ("Heart in the Hand of the Matter," "Monsoon" and "Days of Being Wild"), but closes perfectly with the spacious title cut, which grooves to an unhurried gait. Bold ideas delivered via adequate resources, Source Tags & Codes is a stunner.

[Yancey Strickler]