46. Source Tags and Codes

Source Tags and Codes– …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (2002)

How: Pitchfork gave it a 10.0. A 10.0 is the most coveted rating in indie rock, a seal of approval by a polarizing but highly respected institution of music journalism. The wonderful writers at Pitchfork decided to hand their blue ribbon to a little known band’s first major-label release, and it was a decision that would overhaul the mythology of the elusive 10.0. The site has given a 10.0 to only twelve newly issued albums, seven during it’s first three years of existence between 1996-99. Since Source Tags and Codes was reviewed in 2002, only three albums have reached the same heights: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot two months later, Robert Pollard’s Relaxation of the Asshole (somewhat in jest) three years later, and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. By today’s standards, the editors were handing out 10.0’s in 2002 like Costco samples, and it’s pretty clear that Source Tags and Codes made the editors revisit the impact of a 10.0.

Why am I giving so much attention to Pitchfork? For one, the site contains without question the best music journalism in the business. For another, it turned me at least in the direction of a good amount of the music I listen to, and I’m afraid the name will come up many times throughout my next 45 “how” sections. But the most important reason: Pitchfork messed up. When compared to the other eleven albums, and the dozens of reissues the site has labelled worthy of a 10.0, Source Tags and Codes clearly does not deserve the distinction, said others. None of the backlash went towards …Trail of Dead, but instead towards Matt LeMay’s hyperbolic review as a reason why Pitchfork should not carry so much critical weight.

I went to a used record store a few years ago and bought the album anyway. I was incredibly apathetic about pressing play; I don’t know if I would have paid full price for a new disc, thinking I’d be hearing some combination of emo and metal, and it sat on my desk untouched for a few weeks. On a slow night, I decided it would be wasted money if I didn’t listen through the album at least once, so I imported it onto my computer and pressed the space bar.

Why: Source Tags and Codes was released in the same year as Turn on the Bright Lights. They have little in common, and where Interpol hooked listeners with the album’s first three songs, …Trail of Dead saved their best stuff for the album’s final fifteen minutes, using the bottom third as a foundation by which to build a tower of awe and amplifiers. Source Tags and Codes ends as a magnificent testament to the beauty of anger and aggressive expression, which is impressive considering it begins as nothing more than an enjoyable rock record.

The suggestive font and torrid album art foster understandable expectations: this album needs to melt faces, and …Trail of Dead doesn’t disappoint. Opener “It Was There That I Saw You” explodes and engulfs earbuds with the ferocity of a Black Flag circle jerk and the precision of a scorned archer (with a bell!), and “Another Morning Stoner” continues the momentum while Conrad Keely shouts the album’s best nugget of wisdom: “WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?/IT’S EVERYTHING!” Both “Baudelaire” and “Homage” are incredibly fun but forgettable enthusiastic bursts, preluding the album’s straightfaced mid-section, a post-punk sitdown of sorts, lectures with distortion.

“How Near How Far” exemplifies the band’s most compelling ability: drumming. It’s incredible that three of the band’s four members rotated singing, guitar, and drum duties, but it also makes it difficult to assign credit. The band’s machine-gun drums rip apart “How Near How Far” into an aggressive catharsis, and without a compelling rhythm section, the song, and most of the album, would probably have been relegated from “massive” to “meh.” Often times, the drums feel as if they are about to unravel, too impatient for its own band’s often tedious pace, wanting to turn the next corner before the rear wheels have settled. The drumming on Source Tags and Codes doesn’t necessarily impress, but it consistently captivates and demands attention in a genre that bows too quickly to guitar riffs.

That’s not to say the guitars don’t keep pace; they’re mostly excellent, especially on “Days of Being Wild,” kicking off the album’s blissful final third. “Days of Being Wild” should foreshadow the ultimate barrage of fury, but …Trail of Dead decided to take the road less traveled, and they discovered a path of enlightened thinking. “Relative Ways” and the title track shift away from anger towards a resolution, a move that marks the album with an incredible sense of human understanding despite its breathless half-hour pity storm. “After The Laughter” is a one minute transition between the album’s final two tracks, and though it serves as an instrumental bridge, it’s the album’s best and simplest moment. A door creeks, vinyl humming tickles the recording, harmonies overshadow birds and radio interference, and strings compliment a three-note piano riff with the confidence of a George Harrison composition. We get another moment like this soon after the title track, a la “A Day in the Life,” where a string quartet gives us the reason why this album should be so beloved: …Trail of Dead may be caught in an unenviable purgatory between punk and metal, but they understand emotional melody, and they’re courageous enough to share it with us.

It’s not a 10.0. For one, the lyrics suck (it’s hard to sing along). For another, it takes too long to form, and when it does, it makes me wonder if they composed it like a mystery novel, backwards from the ending. This is mere nitpicking, however, when exposed to …Trail of Dead’s dark exuberance. Melody is melody, regardless of volume, but Source Tags and Codes merits Marshall amps turned to 11, but one should be careful: repeated listens may require a new face.

Next: Buena Vista Social ClubBuena Vista Social Club  (1999)

 

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