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Dead reckoning

There's a particularly tough kind of creative pressure involved when everyone expects your next work to be the one that delivers - to represent your artistic coming-of-age. Artistic inspiration is inevitably elusive, but among critics and A&R reps, it's often treated as something that can be planned and anticipated.

Coming off the great promise of 2002's Interscope debut Sources Tags and Codes, and the following year's stopgap EP The Secret of Elena's Tomb, Austin's punk powerhouse And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead confronts such pressures with its latest release, deciding to throw caution out the back window while speeding down the freeway's HOV lane.

Widely regarded as the group's "art-rock" move, Worlds Apart simply confirms what's been obvious for a while, that this quintet chafed at the constraints of being regarded as a Southwestern answer to Sonic Youth. Even on this album's bleakest tunes - and it's a pretty relentlessly bleak exploration of America's psychic underbelly - you sense the exhilaration of a dynamic band liberating its own imagination.

   Worlds apart

And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead
(Interscope Records)

The title song establishes the tone, with lead singer Conrad Keely sounding like David Lowery fronting Fugazi, as he equates the dismal state of rock 'n' roll with a society spoiled by its sense of privilege: "We're so fucked these days/We don't know who to hate or who to praise." In the incendiary chorus, he views our pampered ennui from an outsider's perspective, with a take on 9/11 so brutally unsparing, you're tempted to worry that the Department of Homeland Security might start tailing the band's tour bus: "How they laughed as we shovelled the ashes of the twin towers/blood and death, we will pay back the debt for this candy store of ours."

The musical range of the album is impressive, but what's amazing is that the group can pull off its ventures into piano balladry ("The Summer of '91"), violin-driven folk waltz ("To Russia My Homeland"), and Dark Side of the Moon-like grandeur ("All White") without breaking a sweat. Even when Trail of Dead's hopelessness gets oppressive, its ability to rock the most unwieldy time signatures and luxuriant soundscapes makes this a giddy ride.

Gilbert Garcia