Thirty years after the Who taught us that instruments are for smashing, the onstage explosion of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead in the 7th Street Entry last year was a gesture of almost absurdist overkill. The salient detail I took away from the show's climactic 35th minute was the glee with which band members handed pieces of the disassembled drum kit into the audience, like kids looting an ice-cream stand. Anyone who slugged through Henry Rollins's account of becoming a shut-in on the road with Black Flag or who watched Nirvana crumble could see this new, good-natured form of total-commitment confrontation as an auspicious sign of punk life. By comparison Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Make Up, who match Trail in energy and mod style, seemed self-contained. Even the group's name has all the unhip silliness of a Monty Python joke, right down to that stupid ellipsis.
When AYWKUBTTOD (usually called simply Trail of Dead) returned for another Entry bout later last year, the musicians were forced to take a more conservative approach, playing as they were on borrowed instruments. Months before thieves made off with the tour vehicles of Sonic Youth and Cibo Matto, Trail of Dead walked into a New Orleans pay lot to find their van and equipment gone like a dropped wallet. Set back some $10,000 just as their label, Trance Syndicate, was going under, the quartet stopped booking shows and soon returned to Austin, Texas, to regroup.
"It was sort of a blessing in disguise," says drummer-guitarist-vocalist Jason Reece, admitting how silly it sounds and speaking over the phone from the home he shares with his bandmates. Perhaps, like the nesting narrator of Fight Club (a film Rollins might have dreamed up), these twentysomething natives of Texas and Hawaii needed the vacation from possessions that punk preaches. Drawing on the charity of friends and engineer Michael McCarthy, the group recorded the scream-rock of their new Madonna slowly over a six-month period, aiming for something artier than the documentary utility of their eponymous 1998 debut.
"We wanted to make this Fear of a Black Planet-like, atmospheric album," says Reece. "It's not really hip-hop influenced or anything, but it's got a thick quality."
Superchunk's label, Merge, heard the results and leapt on the project, releasing a denser version of the Stooges' old throb, with Fugazi's dynamic shifts, surprising synthesizer squirts, and stray vocal samples.
Having learned to switch instruments while living in Olympia, Washington, during the scene's pre-Nevermind peak, Reece and childhood friend Conrad Keely pinch-hit on drums, strums, and scary Sonic Youth shouting. The Unwound/Drive Like Jehu mélange they muster is heavy, but not metallic (Britain's NME hears the Afghan Whigs, but then the NME thinks Austin is in the Midwest). It's not particularly fun music: They may get Iggy live, but the lyrics are filled with such boner phrases as "a holocaust solution requires network access." Beyond the unintended humor of the album's opening verses--"If I could make a list/Of my mistakes and regrets/I'd put your name on top/And every line after it"--it's best to take their form as content.
And yet, and yet...this is still the most tightly wound rock to come along since any of the aforementioned originals. However glum Madonna's forays into sexual guilt ("Flood of Red") or generational guilt-tripping ("Sigh Your Children") may be, you can't help picturing Reece wailing behind his soon-to-be-smashed drums, smiling like Chris Kattan breaking character.
"We've had our share of hard knocks, so I think that's a representation of how we feel," Reece says of the album's overall tone. "But live we just feel like it's hard to watch a band who become this whole pretentious image of heaviness, which is just a gimmick. I think that we're there to go crazy, to let loose. There's this subconscious thing that happens, and we're like animalistic freaks. It's this weird gratification of your existence--and you become addicted to it."