Sometimes, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead seems to feel obligated to produce music of immediate and undeniable greatness. Artists like Guided by Voices and Radiohead made anthemic music during the 1990s, but they did so with a disarming sense of humility. For GBV, this resulted in brevity and sloppy musicianship; for Radiohead, in self-effacing oddness. The fifth track on the Trail of Dead's So Divided, a cover of Guided by Voices' "Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory," highlights the difference: Robert Pollard's intimate, croaking performance is replaced here by the Trail of Dead's stupefying pop-classical overproduction. The Trail of Dead's self-conscious rock-star posturing is overcompensation for their lack of the natural songwriting talent of a group like U2 or the naked musical prowess of groups like Led Zeppelin or Queen. It is easily dismissed as pretentious and overblown.
But the Trail of Dead is not always completely unsuccessful. True, creation doesn't seem to come easily to songwriters Conrad Keely and Jason Reece, and in their struggle they end up manhandling their songs. Here, the result is music that unintentionally functions almost as a study of stadium rock, forcibly disassembling and recombining conventions in unexpected ways. This tendency is most apparent on So Divided's title track, in which schmaltzy 4/4 piano suggestive of Paul McCartney or (shudder) Meat Loaf yields to a racing bridge that recalls the Trail of Dead's own punk roots spliced with Oasis's grating bombast. Other examples are "Stand in Silence," which juxtaposes ultra-compressed radio rock with a cinematic march, and "Life," a stately stomp punctuated with stumbling, chromatic piano, on which Keely does an acceptable impression of John Lennon (or perhaps more Oasis).
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The unorthodox arrangement of these clichs makes them far more effective than they would be in songs that were better written. So Divided's best moments, however, on "Sunken Dreams" and "Wasted State of Mind," come not from the exploitation of clichs but from the band's shameless ambition. "Mind" is Keely's jaded, solipsistic exploration of worldliness, complete with bongos and accordion, while "Dreams" is a slamming and unapologetically epic contribution from Reece. Like all of this band's music, these songs are obvious and insufferably self-indulgent. What's so confounding is that it's this very indulgence that makes the Trail of Dead's music interesting.