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Rage Before Beauty

. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Source Tags & Codes (Interscope)

Throwing their shoulders against the hard anvil of the hype machine, the music press has heralded the likes of the Strokes, the White Stripes, . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and the Hives in recent months. I’m as wary as anyone about overestimating the talents of this crop. (In fact, I find the Strokes simply OK and the White Stripes merely good.) Nevertheless, if I were to single out one of these groups for greatness, it would be Trail of Dead, who, in the form of Source Tags & Codes, have released one of the most powerfully beautiful and gorgeously fucked-up albums of the year.

The group have built a reputation for onstage chaos, grimly trashing various venues in a dark rage that only these four black-haired men from Austin, Texas, can fully understand. Beyond this inflated persona, however, lie real chops. Trail of Dead wield their guitars in a noise-meets-melody region somewhere between Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and shining through all of the grimness are hooks galore. “How Near, How Far” is a prime example, with breathless, martial drum rolls underpinning ringing, cascading guitar fury. The track unfolds like great drama, alternately receding and bursting forth.

“Another Morning Stoner” is another good example of Trail of Dead’s intent, with frenzied drums muscling up against the guitar sheen, and vocals rapidly ascending to coarse-throated desperation. The title track, meanwhile, is ruggedly beautiful from start to finish, with a vocal line that reimagines Oasis’ Liam Gallagher as American indie-rocker over rolling, Pavement-like guitar figures. So bruised is this album’s psyche that it would be almost unbearable to take without the flashes of melodic greatness, and just as the Trail of Dead plumb the deepest regions of raw, visceral emotion, so too do the clouds part to carry the listener away on melody. Simply put, Source Tags & Codes is one of those albums I want to constantly talk about and press friends and strangers alike into hearing.

—Erik Hage

Various Artists
The Scorpion King: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture (Universal)

Various Artists
WWF: Forceable Entry (Smackdown/Columbia)

In a smackdown between two new hard-rock compilations with ties to wrestling stars, The Scorpion King scores a decisive victory over WWF: Forceable Entry—and not just because the Rock in Theban battle gear makes for better cover art than the logo for the World Wrestling Federation. For starters, both comps have Rob Zombie in their corner, but WWF’s remix of Zombie’s played-out “Never Gonna Stop” is no match for Scorpion’s “Iron Head,” Zombie’s techno-stomp duet with Ozzy and a high point for both of their (very compatible) satanic majesties. For evil sizzle, WWF can only offer Marilyn Manson’s 6-year-old club hit “The Beautiful People.”

Which disc has the better tag team of bands is strictly a judgment call, but the heavy-metal Scorpion features mostly brand-new songs (some of which may actually have been inspired by the movie, such as Mushroomhead’s Middle Eastern- inflected winner, “Along the Way”), and a somewhat thematic mix that leans toward the apocalyptic. The rappy B-sides of WWF’s wrestling-star theme songs are anchored by Kid Rock’s listless remake of “Legs” and a fatigued Creed ballad that can’t keep up with Scorpion’s rollup opener, “I Stand Alone” by Godsmack. The motion-pic disc does have a weakest link: Nickelback’s sappy “Yanking Out My Heart,” but the comp’s many up-and-comers (Drowning Pool, Lifer) all prove their mettle, especially newbies Injected, who jump promisingly into the ring with the catchy, pecs-flexing “Burn It Black.” Meanwhile, WWF is dragged out by a slew of dated wannabes such as Stereomud, Saliva and the Union Underground.

The reigning champion of both comps is Scorpion’s new System of a Down song, “Streamline,” a career high for the most passionate and powerful heavyweight rock act of the century. As if responding to critics’ quibbles about the band’s overly wordy political screeds on last year’s Toxicity, System’s Serj Tankian has shot back with a scaldingly simple emotional cataclysm, scored by a staggering vocal performance that could blow away a legion of Theban warriors.

—Ann Morrow

Van Morrison
Down the Road (Universal)

Van Morrison is sounding fit and relaxed on this hearty exploration of soul. There’s straight blues on “What Makes the Irish Heart Beat,” high- stepping rhythm & blues on the wonderful narrative “Choppin’ Wood,” wistfulness with a chug on the rueful “Fast Train.” There’s hardly a weak cut (the exception is an indulgent cover of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind”), and overall, the album is cohesive and satisfying. Not all is bucolic here, though Morrison’s mastery of rock pastorale shines on the gorgeous “Steal My Heart Away” and “The Beauty of Days Gone By.” There’s warmheartedness and impatience—their blend is one reason Morrison keeps his edge nearly 40 years into his career—and a preoccupation with work: “Man Has to Struggle,” a rumbling set of homilies leavened by an arch bridge, attests to Morrison’s doggedness; and “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?” an inquiry into rock footnotes Proby, Screaming Lord Sutch and Scott Walker, winds up as wry commentary on Morrison’s own position. The music is terrific: Horns and strings and B3 cohabit with ease and sensuality, Morrison sings articulately, and the record navigates all kinds of textures, no sweat. It’s tough and dreamy and rocks so effortlessly, you’ll want to revisit Morrison all the way back to Them.

—Carlo Wolff

Eddie Palmieri
La Perfecta II (Concord)

After bursting into the Latin music scene in the early ’60s, Eddie Palmieri has spent four decades exploring Afro-Caribbean music, garnering a shelfload of Latin Jazz Grammys along the way. La Perfecta II mixes the excitement of his early innovations in salsa, charange, mambo and other idioms with the wide sonic spectrum of the modern recording studio. Exuding warmth and clarity, Palmieri’s new album mixes five older pieces with six new ones. The album takes its name from his Conjunto La Perfecta ensemble, who disbanded in 1968. This reconvening, with a set of younger musicians, is based on fortuitous happenstance, as was the original band’s chance encounter between Palmieri and the late Barry Rogers. Palmieri’s delight in potent arrangements and compositions, with ample room for improvisation, sounds easy enough, but the ambitious change he brought to the music stills casts a long shadow today. This new album is no mere rehashing; it is flush with its own vitality. It offers rhythmic excitement wedded to brassy dazzle, and soloists with individual flair and character.

—David Greenberger

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