With the indie rock generation coming of age, it is only fitting that its standard-bearers would advance from the aggressively intellectual postpunk screeds of youth to the grandiose postgraduate statements that come with maturity and hubris. But ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead has always been ambitious, from the rococo, old-timey cover art for albums such as Source Tags and Codes to the vivid emotions that Conrad Keely and Jason Reece express over the tumultuous catharsis of their two breakout alt-rock hits, "Relative Ways" and "Another Morning Stoner." So Worlds Apart, the latest indie rock opus that aspires to world-beating (or, at the very least, mainstream) acclaim, isn't a departure, but a fragmentation into suites and ballads. For this Austin, Texas, band, just like the newly countrified Isaac Brock's more Modest Mouse, growing up can mean tempering down your rock and roll.
Certainly one can hear why HBO might want to use "The Best," an elegiac and darkly humorous conceit, instead of the omnipresent "Relative Ways," on its promo commercials. But even "The Best" is fleetingly graceful, teetering between Todd Rundgren-style tranquility and awkward poetry. As varied as its combination of rock and classical ideas can be, much of the music on Worlds Apart just isn't very memorable.
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One consolation comes from the words, which range from broadside (on "Worlds Apart" Keely sings, "How they laughed as we shoveled the ashes/Of the twin towers/Blood and death, we will pay back the debt/For this candy store of ours") to, oddly enough, a tribute to the little-watched cable channel "Classic Arts Showcase" ("Here I am comfortable/All those clowns, what can they know?" sings Reece). Perhaps it's the lack of contrast between the voices and the band's performances, which are augmented by numerous guest players. On "Classic Arts Showcase," for example, the band pounds out a hard groove before the music drops out completely for an orchestral arrangement -- an aural representation of the high art the band treasures -- before kicking back into the groove they had laid before. It's a fanciful metaphor that is rendered all too literally.
Yet it would be a mistake to write off Worlds Apart as a tragic, career-altering mistake. Even this somewhat disappointing release is worth listening to, if only to follow the trajectory of a band as talented as ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and conclude that you don't need to aspire to the heavens to tell an epic story.