...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Madonna

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Madonna

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Trail of Dead’s second album, a keystone in the aggressive indie-rock boon of the late ’90s.

Superstar producer-turned-Interscope Records impresario Jimmy Iovine didn’t discover …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead in a club, or through college radio, or in a stack of demos. He found out about the Austin, Texas enfants terribles in the same place a lot of people discovered new bands before the internet: the magazine section at a Borders bookstore. But those mundane circumstances say a lot about Trail of Dead’s peculiar situation back at the turn of the millennium.

While the band’s second record, Madonna, had received a wide North American release through Merge, their combustible art-punk was received more warmly in Europe—and upon flipping through an import copy of NME, Iovine became fascinated with this unknown American band who looked like a demonic Beatles and were developing a fearsome reputation for their unhinged live show. “It was the best magazine I ever bought,” he would later tell the L.A. Times in 2001, after signing Trail of Dead to a major-label deal, underwritten with his personal commitment to support their long-term development. “I don’t care how long it takes,” he said. “We’ll sit there and let them do their thing. They have the talent.”

The one thing I’ll always have in common with the 13th richest power broker in Hollywood is that, like him, I had also become obsessed with Madonna, and was willing to go to great lengths to indulge my fandom. In March of 2001, I traveled 1,500 miles from Toronto to see Trail of Dead play in Austin for 15 minutes, at what was supposed to be their triumphant homecoming show at South by Southwest. By the time they took the stage, the bar’s back-patio area was vibrating with anticipation, and Trail of Dead uncorked that festering energy with a new song that, about a year later, we’d recognize as “It Was There That I Saw You,” the titanic lead-off track from their Interscope debut, Source Tags & Codes.

But the moment of glory was short-lived: Jason Reece had busted his kick drum in the middle of the song, leading to a sheepish request for another act on the bill to loan them a replacement. When no one stepped forward to help, Reece tried to make do by placing a small rack tom on the floor in front of his kick pedal—a savvy bit of MacGyvering, but one that effectively forced the band to play this hyped-up show with one hand tied behind their back.

Four songs in, Trail of Dead teed up Madonna’s cataclysmic showstopper “A Perfect Teenhood,” which seemed like a weird choice to drop so early, because it’s the sort of song that only makes sense as a set-closer. But that’s what it was: Even before singer Conrad Keely could fire off the song’s infamous, machine-gunned procession of “fuck you”s, Reece was hoofing his makeshift kit into the crowd, while Keely tossed his guitar aside to tear down the venue’s beer-sponsor signage, narrowly escaping the clutches of some seriously pissed-off bouncers. (Guitarist Kevin Allen, meanwhile, picked up one of the many beer bottles tossed onstage and used it to coax more ungodly noise from his instrument as if nothing was amiss.) Once the chaos subsided, I wasn’t sure if I had just witnessed the worst or greatest rock‘n’roll show I’ve ever seen.

On the one hand, the band’s SXSW massacre could be seen as an impulsive, heat-of-the-moment response to a frustrating technical setback; on the other, it was precisely what the crowd came to see. Whatever national attention Trail of Dead had acquired at the time came largely through their first television appearance in 2000 on the USA Network program Farmclub. Launched by Iovine with Universal CEO Doug Morris, Farmclub was an early attempt by major-label execs to muscle in on the nascent, post-Napster digital-music landscape: it was part online-music portal for unsigned bands, part old-school variety show—or, more accurately, paid Universal infomercial—featuring live performances and couch cameos from Iovine’s rock-star pals. After getting a pep talk from Bono, Trail of Dead performed a particularly rangy version of “Richter Scale Madness” from their 1998 self-titled debut, while the show’s poor go-go dancers tried to keep their rhythm to the sound of a drum kit being destroyed.

Reece later admitted those Farmclub shenanigans were staged—as avowed fans of the Who, Trail of Dead were simply using their moment in the spotlight to plot their very own Smothers Brothers spectacle. But if instrument-smashing has come to be seen as an unnecessarily wasteful act of rock-star excess (heartland troubadour John Hiatt was calling that shit out back in ’93), it remained the most accurate means for Trail of Dead to communicate the emotional tumult and manic ferocity coursing through their early records.

All of Trail of Dead’s sonic signatures were already in full effect on their 1998 self-titled debut: the gliding Daydream Nation guitar jams, the rapid-fire tom rolls that sound like you’re being besieged by an overhead warplane, the throat-shredding vocals from Keely and Reece (who also routinely traded positions on guitar and drums). The band clearly had grand ambitions, but was constricted by murky, low-budget production (not to mention limited distribution—the record was among the final releases on Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey’s Trance Syndicate label before it went under). Madonna was another shoestring operation, recorded by Spoon producer Mike McCarthy during his off-hours before the group had finalized or received an advance from their Merge deal. But in every possible aspect—sound quality, songwriting, sequencing, visceral power, dramatic impact—Madonna represented a super-sized upgrade.

Now that the Strokes/Stripes garage-rock renaissance of the early 2000s has been officially canonized, it’s completely overshadowed the preceding golden age of less retro, more aggro bands who were reanimating rock’n’roll in the late ‘90s. Trail of Dead belonged to a loose aggregate of kindred spirits that included At the Drive In, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, Rye Coalition, Hot Snakes, Les Savy Fav, the Icarus Line, and the Blood Brothers—bands whose music was rooted in post-hardcore abrasion, but who had enough swaggering attitude and appreciation for old-school showmanship to court audiences beyond misanthropic punk kids. With Madonna, however, Trail of Dead distanced themselves from the pack. If their debut positioned them as devout, guitar-stabbing students of Sonic Youth, Unwound, and Fugazi, Madonna revealed they were more philosophically in tune with bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Jane’s Addiction, and Nine Inch Nails—groups that carried the torch for the lavishly packaged classic-rock magnum opus into the ‘90s.

Survey a random group of Trail of Dead fans about the band’s greatest album, and the widely celebrated Source Tags & Codes will likely emerge as the consensus pick. But Madonna is like the Revolver to Source TagsSgt. Pepper’s—it captures the thrilling moments of transformation that precede the more formalized masterpiece. Madonna was released in October of 1999, a time when the ugly specters of Columbine and Woodstock ’99 loomed in our collective psyche just as Manson and Altamont did 30 years prior. And with news programs devoting vast blocks of airtime to Y2K-bug prognosticators and survivalists loading up their cellars with non-perishable food items, the media was intent on making you feel paranoid even if you were fairly certain your purple iMac would boot up just fine on January 1st.

As such, Madonna acquired all the grim gravitas of a proper fin-de-siècle soundtrack, a seamless song cycle that both channeled the unbearable pent-up tension of the era and released it through moments of scorched-earth anarchy. But for all its timestamped qualities, Madonna is ultimately fueled by universal, eternal anxieties and grievances: the searing salvo “Mistakes and Regrets” renders romantic longing as an apocalyptic event, while “Totally Natural” rails at a world where celebrity is forever valued over art. (Though the latter was reportedly inspired by, of all things, Keanu Reeves’ moonlighting stint in his alt-rock band Dogstar, Keely’s murderous contempt can easily be redirected to Instagram influencers who score lucrative book deals.)

“Totally Natural” wrote the playbook that countless other Trail of Dead songs would follow: a flash of hardcore ultraviolence that quickly flames out, only to slowly reignite and burn even brighter. It also signals Trail of Dead’s own metamorphosis over the course of Madonna, where the discord gradually gives way to disarming, piano-gilded balladry (“Clair de Lune”) and multi-part, Wall-sized suites (the “Up From Redemption”/“Aged Dolls”/“The Day the Air Turned Blue” sequence on side two). The band’s debut album showed they could handle more delicate material—particularly the eight-minute shoegaze reverie “Novena Without Faith”—but here, they were no longer expressing their most tender feelings in hushed whispers. And unlike Trail of Dead’s subsequent adventures in prog, Madonna’s most elaborate gestures are still executed with a scrappy intensity. This is the sound of a band storming the castle before they became comfortably ensconced within it.

One reason why Madonna flows so smoothly through its peaks and valleys is that the singers’ roles had yet to codify. From Source Tags onward, Keely would become the resident art-rock architect responsible for the band’s most melodically sophisticated turns, while Reece would deflate the pomp with jugular-bursting displays of fury. But on Madonna, they’re more accomplices than foils, harnessing the album’s careening momentum through performances that teeter between vicious and vulnerable. And for further evidence of a band firing on all cylinders, consider that Trail of Dead’s two principal songwriters weren’t even responsible for Madonna’s centerpiece track.

Bassist Neil Busch’s lead-vocal turns with Trail of Dead can be counted on one hand (he left the band in 2004), but on their early records, he was a crucial cool counterpoint to Keely and Reece’s more volatile personalities, bringing balance to the band’s dichotomous musical universe. With “Mark David Chapman,” Busch delivers an arresting chorus-free anthem that meditates on punk’s empowering kill-your-idols philosophy and the heinous actions of those who’ve taken those words to their literal extreme. (And, fitting for a band that’s always tried to reconcile classic-rock mythology with indie pragmatism, the song sounds just like Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” as interpreted by a young Rod Stewart.) By invoking the name of John Lennon’s assassin, Trail of Dead seemed to be issuing themselves a warning that the pursuit of rock sainthood comes with unwanted consequences.

Of course, that didn’t stop them from shooting for the moon and beyond on later records, even after Iovine stopped returning their calls, but on Madonna, the most epic moment is also the most unforgiving. The album climaxes with “A Perfect Teenhood,” which is at once an over-the-top caricature of an anti-authoritarian teen-angst punk rant, and the platonic ideal of an anti-authoritarian teen-angst punk rant. Emerging from the foreboding piano interlude “The Day the Air Turned Blue,” the track is prefaced by the sound of idle chit-chat in a crowded bar, the patrons blissfully oblivious to the onslaught that’s to come—an eerie invocation of the benign moments that occur before disaster suddenly strikes. What follows is essentially a 90-second hardcore rager that’s stretched out to over three times that length, thanks in large part to an extended, endlessly crashing finale showered in enough “fuck you”s to turn the song into the indie-rock “Killing in the Name.”

Alas, the world didn’t come to an end on January 1, 2000. But as media-fuelled hysteria over a phony computer apocalypse has given way to legitimate fears of an actual environmental one, Madonna still sounds as ominous and unsettling as ever. When “A Perfect Teenhood” enters meltdown mode, it’s like being trapped inside of a Biblical plague—it’s the sound of crumbling earth, mass panic, and fire raining down from the sky. Smashing your instruments is the only way to make the terror stop.

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