Trail of Dead's follow-up to the massively acclaimed Source Codes and Tags
is a shaggy, unkempt beast of a record, a CD in which every impulse is indulged, every inside joke belabored. The fact that it hides among its excesses a handful of truly excellent rock anthems seems almost like an afterthought, as if, when the band ran out of crazy ideas, they found that there was nothing left to do but write actual songs.
Worlds Apart opens with evidence that indie rock's last, best hope has jumped the shark. Exhibit A: the "Ride of the Valkyries" excess of "Ode to Isis". Very few rock bands survive the album where they first employ an orchestra; here, Trail of Dead places its bid to become the Moody Blues of the '00s. The frustrating thing about this is that the band clearly still does what it does with passion and skill; "Will You Smile Again for Me", built on an eardrum-pounding guitar riff, is a bit bloated at 6:50 minutes, but nonetheless balances rock-arena heft and subtlety. If Oasis has more than 100 brain cells between them, they might come up with a song like this one ... but it probably wouldn't be as good. Similarly, "Caterwaul" delivers the kind of melodic, balls-to-the-wall rock that can fill stadiums and reorient lives. It's followed by the only slightly less impressive "Classic Arts Showcase", whose impassioned cry of "Here I am" is offset by the "comfortable" that follows it, creating an internal tension and contradiction that will remind you of the best Nirvana songs. The problem is that the song closes in a wildly over-the-top orchestral swell; perhaps Pink Floyd could have carried it off, but Trail of Dead sound silly and pretentious.
The entire album is justified in the monolithic "Let It Drive", its circling guitar riff as hypnotic as anything Ride or MBV ever constructed, its soaring vocals built for large-scale mass audience conversion. Certain rock songs, heard in certain circumstances, can be almost religious experiences, and "Let It Drive" might just be one of them. But don't get too comfortable; it's followed by two bizarre interludes -- "To Russia My Homeland" (note to aspiring rock bands: avoid timpani at all costs) and the Dark Side of the Moon excesses of "All White". The album closes well, though, with "The Best"'s rattling, chaotic surge and the mostly laid-back (but occasionally engaging) "Lost City of Refuge".
In some ways Worlds Apart reminds me of one of my favorite albums, The Who Sell Out. Both embed their songs in a layer of silliness, and both are self-indulgent to the point of parody, but both contain some truly mind-bending songs. Still, they make you work for them, and somewhere around the 300th listen to "Armenia City in the Sky", you may wish that you didn't have to hear the commercial at the beginning and end. I'm guessing you'll eventually feel the same way about Trail of Dead's orchestral ambitions, though it may not take as long.