19 February 2009

a two-for-one post (Thursday, plus ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead)

I've remarked before about how I really didn't care for Thursday before the United Nations record came out. That's changed; I've gone out and picked up War All The Time, and it's a good, solid record. It probably would've changed the way I thought about music if I'd heard it when it was released, but even now, a good six years after the fact, it holds up as better-than-good. After that, I pulled their split EP with Envy off of iTunes, and again, pretty high quality music (I wrote a tiny little bit about it here). I liked how they were experimenting with what I'm familiar with as their core sound, and hoped it'd carry over to their new release, Common Existence.

I'm a little sad to report that we didn't get any epic, Explosions in the Sky-type instrumental noodling on Common Existence; what we got instead was another good record from Thursday. It's not going to get me picking up my guitar and writing screamo songs, but every track on the album is good, more than listenable, and better listened to than skipped. This puts it heads and shoulders above most every record that's been released in my lifetime.

Geoff Rickly has himself an amazing vocal range (not quite matching the level of Daryl Palumbo or the much-beloved Mike Patton, but he can sing and scream with the best of them), and after the UN album, I'm pretty certain he works best as one half of a duo. Tim McIlrath's voice (the voice of Rise Against, about whose latest album you'd be able to find my reaction here), in concert with Geoff's, on the first track ("Resuscitation of a Dead Man") packs an extraordinary punch - they may be the two best voices in... I was about to type "modern rock," but I know that's completely off bas
e... They may be the two best voices in rock (save Chris Cornell, but he's kind of fallen by the wayside) suited to sing about a desperate desire to stay alive. It's a beautiful song, in its own way.

"Last Call" might be the most heartwrenching song I hear all year; lines like, "Everything we build, it falls apart/And the architect abandons us," and "Last call for the two of us/And the people sang/Everything is falling apart," wouldn't strike me as particularly profound or affecting, but this is where I bring up Rickly's voice again, because he sells the songs, completely. The same goes for "Friends in the Armed Forces." This is the kind of song I wish people had been writing about six years ago, when it might've actually made a difference. Admittedly, I'm beating a dead horse here when I talk about the disaster that is the Iraq invasion/occupation, and I should be grateful that so many people in the creative community finally opened their eyes to what's going on, when I read lines like this:

You say you're defending me/
I'm sick of tying yellow ribbons/

Praying not to see/
We're not going to hell/
To run rings around a wishing well"

I can't help but wonder what sort of world we'd live in if this artistic rebellion had come to pass a few years earlier. That's not to discount it; it has some of my favorite guitar lines on the album. It's just... not nearly enough, not now.

The thing I've come to like most about Thursday is how their sound evolves, while their thematic concerns remain, more or less, the same. There's a continuity thread inside of the growth, and I think that's a good way to evolve as artists and still manage to keep yourself grounded. With that, I want to single out one more song, "Subway Funeral," which deals with the "classic" Thursday issues of connectivity (human connectivity... relationships... love... etc). I think it does a great job of punching you in the face, sending you reeling back, and just when you think you've prepared yourself for the final blow... silence, for almost a good ten seconds (following the line, "this will never end," which entertains me). Then, the song unleashes the full force of its fury in the last minute. I appreciate the fakeout; I also appreciate the words, like:

Surprise, surprise/
Everything you know will flash bef
ore your eyes/
You're frozen with your hands against the glass/
I'm seeing bright lights/
I'm hearing sharpened knives/
I'm praying to a neon sign/
As I wait for this severed line to take me"

So few songs anymore have the ability to paint pictures of true grandeur with just their lyrics. That's another reason I've finally come to appreciate Thursday. That's why I'm now excited at the prospect of picking up more of their records, and maybe someday seeing a concert of theirs.

As for ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, I've also recently come to enjoy their music. I remember seeing them perform on Conan long ago, and being horribly confused as they systematically demolished their instruments. Late night talk shows tend to be bad venues for bands, anyway (Pearl Jam's always been good, but, hell, they're Pearl Jam. Anybody besides me remember Audioslave's coming out party on Letterman? Man, was the sound bad), and this was no exception. My guess is that their music overloaded the microphones... In any case, I didn't seek out the Trail of Dead for a long time afterwards. At least, not until The Century of Self started getting glowing reviews.

I'd be remiss if I said nothing about the artwork. Apparently, Conrad Keely, one of the two founders, did the cover art himself, in blue ballpoint pen. People who can draw amaze me; I'm terribly jealous of them. This, however, is awe-inspiring. If you have the opportunity to get a good look at it, I'd make a strong case for doing so. I'm not an art critic, but I know what I hate, and I am so far away from hating this...

Not to be too general, but I particularly like the overall... epic-ness (epic nature?) and energy of The Century of Self. "Giant Causeway" betrays some pretty bombastic tendencies, which are expanded upon in "Far Pavillions," which come to a gorgeous head in "Isis Unveiled" (which, as my friend Matt says, has got to be the leading candidate for Song of the Year at this point. I still like "My Girls" - off Meriwether Post Pavillion - a whole awful lot, but "Isis Unveiled" could probably take it in a fight). "Halcyon Days" almost slows things down a bit (but not for long) before we get to "Bells of Creation," which kind of sounds like Trail of Dead writing a Who song. I like it; I don't quite know what to make of it, but I certainly do like it.

Let me backtrack a minute to "Isis Unveiled." It just has so much infectious, aggressive energy. It's a song that cannot be denied. It might well be a song that produces what I have long referred to as a "good" mosh pit (where fun, rather than pain, is the goal). The way it comes to its stomping, head-banging slowdown in the middle, only to ramp things up once again for a rousing finish, is something to adore.

"Fields of Coal" has a little bit of a U2 tinge (probably due to the keys... I guess that could be attributed to Springsteen as much as the lads from Dublin, though). I love "Luna Park" (I've always been a sucker for guitar paired with piano, one instrument mirroring the other) and "Ascending" (because it calls back to the furious energy of the beginning of the album). For an album that could be accused of being all over the place all too often, Trail of Dead have put out a record that I feel is far greater than whatever the sum of its individual parts might be thought to be.

I think that Century of Self, insofar as the music goes, is one of the best constructed albums I've ever heard. The ways in which musical elements (themes?) return from song to song, the almost hypnotic ebbing and flowing of the music, and the passion of it... It works on a very fundamental level, almost a gut level. For me, that's kind of a big deal.

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