The name Conrad Keely might not ring a bell, but I’m sure you’ve heard his band’s especially unique name once or twice: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. The band started off in Texas in 1995 and then proceeded to more or less tour non-stop for the twenty years that followed. Their last album, IX, their ninth, was a fantastic return to form after a couple of lackluster albums that just didn’t have that kick they were known for.
The first time I played Original Machines, which starts off with the title track, I wasn’t sure if it was going to provide that kick — in the ass — either. The beats are clearly programmed and split the difference between pop and industrial. But eventually the guitars kicked in and it won me over. Besides, this site wouldn’t be called Love is Pop if I didn’t like pop. I just wasn’t expecting it from Conrad. But that’s the fun of solo albums; they give artists that wild abandon they sometimes need to recharge their batteries and feel excited about making music again. To that end, I totally applaud the creativity put into this record. And I’m sure he poured his heart into it because he’s been going where his inspiration leads him lately, currently spending time as an expatriate in Cambodia. I bet you didn’t see that one coming. It’s just not something you hear about rock stars doing every day. But that’s what makes Original Machines so original. The influences on this album are very eclectic. Conrad even drew inspiration from Khmer classics from the golden age of Cambodian psychedelic rock, something that was cut short by the Khmer Rouge regime in 1974. It’s also a bit surprising that the album is also informed by Irish folk and American bluegrass.
Getting back to “Original Machines,” I now believe it was the perfect track to open the record with, as it makes it clear right from the start that this isn’t going to be another Trail of Dead record. It’s definitely not one of those boring solo albums where the artists basically do the exact same thing they do in their band. As an example of this, the solo albums by The Killer’s Brandon Flowers come to mind. His first, Flamingo, was a solid album, but it wasn’t that far removed from The Killers. However, his second, The Desired Effect, was a totally different story, finding him showing off his ’80’s influences with dazzling results. It was a record he could not have made with The Killers and that’s what made it unique and special. Likewise, Original Machines is a record Conrad more than likely could not have made with Trail of Dead.
The second track on the album, “Warm Insurrection,” is a rocking tune and I suppose it’s heavy enough to be a Trail of Dead song, but what makes it so different is the percussion, which sounds like it includes several different instruments. And it’s vibrant; it’s a blast. One of the singles, “In Words Of a Not So Famous Man,” follows and reminds me of Rush at their early best. It’s unpredictable. You definitely don’t expect it to end at the 2:25 mark. But it leaves you wanting more, likely getting the listener excited and curious about the songs to follow, of which there are many; the album is 24 tracks long. Apparently, the folk and bluegrass music to inspire Conrad was from days past when songs typically lasted two minutes. The longest song on here is the prog rock leaning “In The Cave,” clocking in at 3:05. But that’s just fine. Short songs tend to be catchier.
“All the clouds rise up in front of me / Count the ways we’ve grown apart / Time to make this world reflect who we are,” he sings on “Drive to Kampot,” a song undoubtedly inspired by his travels. “I’m alive today / On a train to the sun,” he sings shortly after. The song is just over-flowing with the sort of excitement you get when you travel, especially to foreign countries. (It makes me want to go back to Paris so badly. It makes me want to go to many places.) The surging and sparkling guitars here remind me of ’80’s rock a bit. The riffs aren’t that far removed from, say, INXS or even Duran Duran. But if you’re not into those, don’t worry, I could be imagining it. This album makes me feel creatively inspired, which is the best thing music can do for me, aside from providing an emotional companion during hard times. It’ll get the wheels in your brain rolling, too.
Many of the album’s best tracks are about Conrad’s life in Cambodia. It’s clear just looking at titles like “Hills of K-Town,” “The Jungles” and “Drive Back to Phnom Penh.” You’ll feel like you’ve spent a week there by the time you’re done listening to this record. But the lyrics aren’t all so specific that you have to buy into the Cambodia theme to enjoy it. But, sure, you do have to be ready for a fantastic voyage. Get set, grab this record, and let Conrad be your highly entertaining tour guide