Issue #8: Madonna by …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

March 21, 2016

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Madonna by …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
Released On October 19, 1999
Released By Merge Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By PJ Sykes

Sometime around 1999, a hip friend turned my bandmates and I onto …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. I probably ordered their first album and then Madonna because that is how I roll; I can’t remember anymore. In a way, they feel like one long album to me.

The cover photograph features a painting by Conrad Keely entitled “Portrait Of Kali.” Kali commonly represents preservation (mother nature), destruction, and creation from darkness. Atop Keely’s version appears to be a young, innocent looking, portrait of John Lennon as Kali presides over an altar with several photographs, possibly in memory of friends who have passed away. A perfect setup for the poetic lyrics and music contained within.

Trail Of Dead! Trail Of Dead! Trail Of Dead! Trail Of Dead! Trail Of Dead!

and you will know us by the trail of dead… dead… dead… dead.. dead…

Madonna was recorded on a tight budget with Mike McCarthy (produced many of the Spoon records), who snuck the band into the studio, sometimes in the middle of the night. Limitations might have been frustrating at the time, but surely forced the band to be more creative. I love the sound collage/interludes that decay into new songs, sometimes leaving clues as to what might be next. I love the layers of references in song titles, lyrics, and artwork, leading me down many rabbit holes over the years. I love the band mythology that started around this time and has extended into interviews. Most of all, the combination of styles — orchestral, classical, psyche, and prog with punk rock — spoke to me as a band geek who was just discovering the 80s underground back catalog.

My friends and I heard about their legendary live shows that supposedly put Nirvana’s instrument smashing to shame. At that time, the internet was still young (read: no YouTube), but there was a new show hosted by Matt Pinfield, of MTV’s 120 Minutes, called Farmclub. We heard that Trail Of Dead were scheduled to play as the “local” band on an episode with U2, Wyclef Jean, and “up and coming band” At The Drive-In. A fresh VHS tape was purchased to document what we assumed was the only chance to see our beloved new band. We watched as U2 and Wyclef performed their newest singles. We watched At The Drive-In send transmissions from the “One Armed Scissor” to a confused audience. But it was Trail Of Dead that absolutely moved us. They didn’t give a fuck what the audience, Farmclub, or the other bands thought and they didn’t even play a song from their current album (seen flashing on the monitors behind them). They just destroyed! We were in awe. For the next year or two, it was my bands’ superstitious ritual to watch that VHS before leaving the house to play our own shows. A reminder to live in the moment.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

Portraits by Traci Goudie.

Before listening to Madonna, all I knew of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead was the particular delight that WNYC’s John Schaefer seems to take every time he mentions their name. Which is often. But even with that imprimatur, I never followed up and listened. Until now… After a brief, slightly eerie intro, Madonna quickly hits overdrive with “Mistakes & Regrets” and it’s a thrilling sound, with searing guitars goaded on by drums that seem near collapse — you can practically hear the cymbal stands sway — backing up shredded, impassioned vocals. The unflagging pace on “Totally Natural” and “Blight Takes All” gets me thinking of arty scuzz-psych bands like Wand and Wooden Shjips. Then Madonna slows down and engages in a wider palette of harmonic colors. “Flood Of Red” is a pop song in disguise and there are pretty moments, especially in “Mark David Chapman“. The epic soar of “Aged Dolls” creates a reflective mood, but “A Perfect Teenhood,” one of their most blistering tracks, breaks the reverie with its double-time squall and repeated shouts of “Fuck you!” — tell us how you really feel, boys. Madonna ends with a mini-suite in three sections, embracing dissonance and abandoning song form entirely. It’s a provocative ending to an interesting album. I have no idea where Madonna sits in their canon — advance, retreat, stasis? — but it’s perfectly clear that Trail Of Dead knows what they want and how to get it.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

I’ve often had occasion to lament, in recent years, the continuing blandification of indie. As this formerly insurgent genre, originally named for its existence outside the mainstream, has slowly become the festival-headlining embodiment of the mainstream itself, the bands have gotten mellower and more cerebral, and have rocked less and less. The main factor that I think has been lost is a consciousness of indie’s roots within punk rock. At one point, you could reliably expect that any indie or alt-rock band who developed a significant buzz featured at least one straight-up punk band somewhere in their lineage, from Sebadoh’s roots in Deep Wound to the Foo Fighters’ legendary pedigree (Scream, the Germs, Brotherhood, Christ On A Crutch, et cetera). Today, it seems more like the indie scene is drawing a straight line between itself and the most indulgent bands of the 70s — Radiohead corresponds with Pink Floyd, Animal Collective matches with The Grateful Dead — and punk rock goes by the wayside. Despite their greatest popularity occurred as the dawning of the Death Cab/Decemberists era was taking place, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead is one of the last bands from that older era. Co-songwriter Jason Reece provides the band’s punk lineage, having drummed for legendary queercore band The Mukilteo Fairies, and on Madonna, he and Conrad Keely crank out the feedback and jack up the tempos, blowing the eardrums out of any unwary heads who expect something more mellow. For me, 2002 major label debut Source Tags & Codes was always the big favorite, but finally giving Madonna an in-depth lesson has proven very rewarding. This is the kind of noise I like. I’ll be coming back to this one.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

There’s so much on this record that’s singular to …And You Will Know Us’ brand of noise rock, but the striking thing about Madonna for me is how familiar it is. There are countless musical moments here that just seem to dance on the tip of my tongue, almost daring me to place them before perverting them into something grimy. It’s inviting, which is important for people stepping out of their musical comfort zone, and it allows you to really open your ears to something simply powerful. Opener “Mistakes & Regrets” gave me my first taste of this with its melancholy tone and perfunctory melodic progression. It opens the song up and makes you feel like you’re travelling down a well-lit road, perfectly paved by more popular, yet restrained, bands like Jimmy Eat World. The band doesn’t let you get too comfortable on this road though. Just as you’re locked in to the feeling of the music, they abruptly and almost violently jerk you in the opposite direction with a cacophony of guitars, drums, and screams, all increasing in force as they bravely forge their own path. It’s not just this opener that gives you this taste of inverted familiarity either. The piano part in “Aged Dolls” feels like a well-placed Rick Rubin bridge while album stand-out “A Perfect Teenhood” seems to borrow thematically and structurally from Blur’s ironic smash hit, “Song 2,” as it plays out as a more visceral takedown of the grunge genre while almore aptly portraying angst in real time too. There’s so much more Madonna offers up, but the beauty is how welcoming all of those things can seem at first. It allows you to really immerse yourself in the sound and appreciate this style much more than you ever would have in normal circumstances.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

This is what happen when you judge a band based solely on its name. For the longest time, I had always assumed that …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead was a hardcore metal band. I had no interest in that genre so I never gave the band the attention that they deserved. Upon listening to AYWKUBTTOD’s Madonna, I was pleasantly surprised to find it full of energetic, fast paced rock I loved so much. The songs on the record are indeed chaotic with all the crashing guitars and emotional vocals, but the band makes it work with the well placed slower parts that quickly amp up the frenzied bits. It reminds me of going to shows back in the day with X’s on my hands and not caring if someone pushed me into a mosh pit (I don’t even go near them now because old). Madonna is everything you can hope for in a good indie rock record and now that I know what they actually sound like, I’m going back to listen to all their stuff.

Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler

If I’m being completely honest, I was not looking forward to this week’s review. What little I knew about …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead before this included the words “alternative rock,” which, for me, falls under the umbrella of “Things Straight (Usually White) Guys Love.” This includes but is not limited to: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eminem, Blink-182, the TV shows Entourage and Band Of Brothers, Marvel movies, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and steak. I’ve realized over the past few years I tend to subconsciously avoid these things, often with prejudice — which explains why I approached Madonna with a hint of dread. And continuing with the honesty, I still have some mixed feelings about it. Sometimes the almost tuneless, shouting vocals turned me off, but then I’d hear the end of “Mistakes & Regrets” and find myself nodding my head. I’d roll my eyes (sorry) at naming a song “Clair De Lune,” but then I’d hear that transition into the next song, “Flood Of Red,” and it’s too good to deny. And when things start to get weirder, from the grandiose post-rock “Aged Dolls” (easily the most ambitious and greatest track) through the end of the album, it’s nothing short of perfect. I mean, having a song called “A Perfect Teenhood” end in a cacophony of noise and “fuck you’s” is hilariously genius. There’s a lot to love here, it just took me a little longer to find it.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

Click to watch the trippy and raw video for “Mistakes & Regrets.”

It’s hard to tell who’s more artistically beautiful and more visually violent here: Kali or Conrad Keely.

There’s something intensely satisfying about a song whose last lyric is “Fuck you!” In the first couple years after college, I used to cover a Keller Williams song called “Gate Crashers Suck,” which documents the frustration Williams experienced after a 1995 Grateful Dead show was canceled because a few “gate-crashing stinky bastards” tore down a fence. The song goes on to sweetly harmonize the words “fuck you” in the chorus, and playing it in a smoky, noisy bar after people were too drunk to notice was delightful. The sweetness and delight aren’t necessarily there on “A Perfect Teenhood.” Instead we find an intense, angsty electricity — a blur of flashing images, many violent — but the clarity of that last line is intoxicating. Who doesn’t want to, at the end of a long, shitty day, forfeit the fight associated with being a good person and just say “fuck you” to someone who genuinely deserves it? I often gravitate towards music that expresses a bravery I just can’t seem to muster in everyday interactions, and Trail Of Dead traffic in just that brand of self-righteousness. It’s an attitude that slowly erodes with compromise — faster, if you’re as quick to compromise as I am — but listening to Madonna gets my blood up, to borrow an old, Southern idiom, and I’m grateful for that.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

I’m an idiot. I’d never heard of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. I certainly would’ve remembered a group with such an obnoxiously long name. So naturally, I thought that the artist was Madonna, and the name of the album was …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Sure, Madonna is precisely the artist, even in 1999, to take up for a super political cause like the plight of Native Americans, hence the allusion to the Trail Of Tears in the title. Hmmm, that’s a really weird album cover for Madonna. Hmmm, this is way more rock-y than I expected for in 1999. Here comes the wall of sound that is “Totally Natural.” And this is definitely not that Madonna. Immediate Google search. Results: I’m an idiot. But after a much needed dose of context, I thoroughly enjoyed this record. The band (I refuse to type out their full name again) seem to have an incredible knack for crescendo. This album is a wild ride through hardcore distortion, peppered with unorthodox interludes that demonstrate the band’s admirable range. “Clair De Lune“, the album’s first high point, is a flat-out great song about a regrettable relationship. The mellow beginnings give way to a ramping frustration that ends in a ferocious refrain of “I don’t know!” Sound like a relationship you’ve been in before? For me, the other standout moment comes with “Aged Dolls“, which employs some unexpected piano chords, a creepy psychedelic vibe, and a well-placed string arrangement on the second chorus. Again, we’re talking crazy, Steph Curry range here. Trail Of Dead…killed it?

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Before listening to Trail Of Dead’s Madonna, I thought I knew what I was going to get. But then, over the next forty-five minutes or so, they completely broke down what in retrospect was a pretty narrow view with a startlingly good record. The intro “And You Will Know Them…” alone drew me in through a mere thirty one seconds into something that felt more like the opening to a hip-hop record than a post-hardcore album. The rest of my pre-conceived notions melted away during the intro to “Mistakes & Regrets” (which is apt in hindsight). It feels it could be lifted from The Cure’s sophomore album Seventeen Seconds specifically “A Forest,” all before the lyrics firmly ground you in late 90s cynicism with lyrics like “because every inch of hope / becomes a world of shame” and “because there is nothing left to say that has not been said” painting a bleak reality before ending a whirlwind of noise. Throughout the album, there is great artistry shown in how Trail Of Dead switch between tranquil melodies into sonic overload. In lesser hands, it could become formulaic, but Conrad Keely’s vocals pique interest constantly and never get lost in the crashing drums or fiery guitars mainly due to the ferocity that is garnered on tracks like “Clair De Lune” and “A Perfect Teenhood.” Throughout this Off You Radar project, I’ve felt like a broken record through the glut of great music I’ve been exposed to, and Madonna is no different in that fact.

Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia

I am guessing I gave up on rock music — real rock and roll, with guitar solos, screaming, and loose songwriting — shortly after my obsession with …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s 2002 record, the Sonic Youth-influenced Source Tags And Codes. We were living in a post-Strokes world, the beginning of the garage revival, and all that mattered were melodies, hip-swinging frontmen, and the romance of a far-off land (Williamsburg, Brooklyn, of course). It is not coincidental that I was also heavily into The Kinks at this time. While I loved Source Tags, it felt like a relic of a style of music that was not “in” anymore. It was too messy and the songs didn’t stick with me like “Soma” did. I never went back and listened to Madonna. So what happened? Did we become too complacent? Did we tire of rock and roll? Maybe “Shake It Off” or “Alright” or “Born This Way” spoke to our sadness and anger and frustration better than straight up rock music could. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to the Unwound reissues on Light In The Attic, and re-buying LPs by bands like The Monorchid. I’ve become a rock and roll-ist again. I’m getting tired of the bullshit and now I need Trail Of Dead. We need Trail Of Dead. We need the non-perfect perfection of “Clair De Lune.” We need the messiness, the “fuck you’s” at the end of “A Perfect Teenhood,” the swallowed lyrics, hushed choruses, and exasperated lyrics. We have a lot to be pissed off about and I hope it inspires more rock music, because I am ready.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Live at Silverlake Lounge. Photographer unknown.

The release of Madonna signifies a crucial point for this Austin based rock outfit. As the band shifted through the parameters of their sound, they were also moving up in the independent music world by releasing this record through Merge Records. Also, the dynamics surrounding the sonic identity of this group were being set in place. Moody, complacent intervals could easily shift into chaotic bursts of rage that the band would become quite known for in their live performances. The recording of Madonna tells an interesting story as well. Nine months spent recording whenever they could steal studio time and feeling like they didn’t really know what they were doing. Even in handing the record over to Merge, they weren’t even sure if the label had any interest in releasing it. Nonetheless, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead surely went on to win over audiences worldwide and generate buzz throughout the major label community, thus leading them to being acquired by Interscope for the release of their follow-up Source Tags & Codes. Madonna works on so many levels due to all of the pieces falling into place. “Clair De Lune” feels like a quick indicator for the melodic direction vocalist Conrad Keely would confidently exude for years following the release of Madonna. “Totally Natural” is the band’s reaction to celebrities starting bands and the attitude intact is a quality they wouldn’t shed any time soon. There are moments where the band achieves great success within multiple territories in a single song. “Mark David Chapman” comes to mind as a song that lyrically engages the idea of fallen idols and how the world as a whole just seems surreal following the tragedy. It examines this point even further by having the unbridled fury of the band take over in the closing moments. Perhaps, the charm of Madonnalends itself towards these ideals littered with cynicism found in any fascination with rock music. While they struggled to figure out who they were as artists, they couldn’t help but look at the past and look at their surroundings to understand purpose and what anyone puts themselves to create art. In the case of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, the result was a discovery that would change the lives of all the members of the band as they entered the twenty-first century.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

A funny story to prelude my piece is that when I first saw what we were reviewing this week, I read the album title as the artist and thought we were doing a Madonna album. With that in mind, this is as far from the Queen Of Pop as you can get. It’s dirty, it’s distorted, and it’s wonderful. …And You Will Know Us by The Trail Of Dead are a band I’ve not come across previously, but after listening to Madonna throughout this week, they are most certainly on my radar now. Madonna, their second album released in 1999, sounds very much like the time it was released in. It has that post-Nirvana grunge emanating from the guitars and its vocals sounds like a precursor to the post-hardcore boom of the early noughties. But the Austin band make it their own with a terrific record. It’s an album with lots of distortion and feedback; most songs start slow and then epically build to a thunderous conclusion. The highlights for me were “Clair De Lune” and “Mistakes & Regrets,” two standouts that follow that formula to provide an enormous sound. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are now nine albums into their career now, but Madonna is as good an entry point as any to a band like this that’s just hugely underrated.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist

When I first started listening to this album, I thought that I was hearing a band very much in the vein of what was coming out in the late 90s and early 2000s. Kind of a pre-goth AFI meets Pavement (I think I just think that every band with a vocalist that kind of sing-talks — even if it’s not all the time — sounds like Pavement) or something. But now that I’ve had time to let the music sink in a little, I think it’s more like Descendents or even a little like Minor Threat (and so, the sing-talking would put it in the Fugazi range) than anything else. My favorite song on the album was “A Perfect Teenhood” for this exact reason and it’s funny because I think their name plus the album artwork actually works against them. I keyed into to the more droney, sprawling, dark elements because that was where I had been led, but “A Perfect Teenhood” is a great punk song in that bratty 80s kind of way. The other highlight for me was the one-two punch of the first two songs, “Mistakes & Regrets” and “Totally Natural.” That’s how you kick off an album, ladies and gents: lure them in with your razor-sharp hooks and then thrash their faces off. I feel sort of the same way about this album as I did about the Gang Starr album: it’s weird to discover the links between two eras of music. As I said, I can totally hear the 80s punk influence on these songs, but I can also hear how this album could have influenced bands that followed them. The bands that I’m specifically thinking of are Silverstein and From Autumn to Ashes, but I’m sure the influence reaches even farther than that.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Madonna sounds like the favorite album of Dracula’s teenage son. Like, I’m pretty positive that there are posters of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead plastering a terrace bedroom in a Transylvanian castle. This album kind of tripped me out with its blend of sounds. It traffics in a handful of styles that I’m not much of a fan of (I’ve never warmed to prog and I like my hardcore to be much more melodic-flavored), but something about the fusion here definitely makes it feel like more than the sum of its parts. The project feels cohesive and atmospheric and interludes like “Children Of The Hydra’s Teeth” suck you into the world of the album. I felt like I was being primed, getting into character, so when the album doles out introspection, it feels personal.

Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist

Okay, so after acknowledging that the band has chosen one morbidly ostentatious name, we can move on to what matters most — the sound! The task of relating the density and depth of this album is daunting. You cannot possibly hear everything happening on this album in one listen. Madonna reveals itself to be just as beautifully delicate as it is brash, rewarding each spin with new subtleties. No transition between songs is unconsidered. The gaps are full of interludes, bits of piano, samples, and sonic experimentation. “Mistakes & Regrets” sums up everything that lies ahead with its shifting cadence and swells. The drums, like a hundred stallions galloping on your chest, form a tumultuous foundation for crashing guitars as lush as they are giant. Keely and Reece are riff monsters, but the guitars simmer as much as they sizzle and sear. “Clair De Lune” finds the vocals slinking into a whisper before surging back on top of the chugging chords. “Mark David Chapman” magnificently channels Sonic Youth style interplay without feeling lazy or derivative. It’s just damn good. The wall of sound that concludes “Aged Dolls” is nothing short of breathtaking complete with a crying string section. Madonna is a masterful deconstructionist and cerebral approach to post-punk rock, as concerned with maximalism as intensity. Few bands are this adept at articulate balancing contrasts within an album – presenting a truly dynamic and cohesive piece of music. If guitar sonics and progressive arrangements are your thing, I can’t recommend this and the follow up, Source Tags And Codes enough. Period.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz

Next Week’s Selection:
Falling Off The Lavender Bridge by Lightspeed Champion
Chosen By James Peart

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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