AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD: LOST SONGS (2012)
1) Open Doors; 2) Pinhole Cameras; 3) Up To Infinity; 4) Opera Obscura; 5) Lost Songs; 6) Flower Card Games; 7) A Place To Rest; 8) Heart Of Wires; 9) Catatonic; 10) Awestruck; 11) Bright Young Things; 12) Time And Again.
With an album title like that, most people would probably think that this is a barrel-scraping outtake collection — coming fresh and hot off the trail of Tao Of The Dead, too, since you do not usually expect bands to put out bunches of new original product each year these days. I have no idea if this was a conscious exercise in self-humiliation, or if somebody just wanted to stamp on the nicely fashionable word «LOST» in there somewhere, but the important statement is: Lost Songs is a damn fine record, and a great return to form. Looks like I was a bit too hasty to write these guys off last time around.
Conventional opinion seems to have solidified around something like this: Lost Songs is a retro-oriented record, with a somewhat more blunt, punkish approach, and its lo-fi production values hint at the desire to recapture the impact of the band's earliest records (such as Madonna). To me, this seems both true and untrue. True, in that the «artsy» excesses of Tao Of The Dead — which, I insist, were really excesses, because nobody cuts an art-rock record in ten days — have mostly been drop-kicked in favor of simpler, cruder, but much more effective melodies. The trademark wall of sound stays firmly in place, and now it comes in huge, but properly delineated blocks, rather than one unbearable monolith with tricky subtleties hidden well beneath the surface.
But false, in that I do not feel much in common between Lost Songs and the early days — other than, indeed, a somewhat slackier approach to production, so that Keely's vocals are once again buried deep in the mix, reaching out to you from under all the guitar layers like a drowning man's last call. Which is surprising, actually, considering the record's agenda: Lost Songs was supposed to directly address many of today's social and political issues (such as the war in Syria, to which ʽUp To Infinityʼ was supposedly dedicated; later on, the band «re-dedicated» the song to Pussy Riot, and the list may be far from over) — so it is a little strange that none of that can really be guessed without taking a close look at the lyrics sheet. Isn't it clear that, if the world is truly so fucked up these days, the kids might lack the appropriate reading skills?
Anyway, the big deal is that many of these melodies hit the senses very effectively — bracing myself for the worst after all the frustration with Tao, I was all but amazed at how many emotionally impressive hooks there are. They may be too simple, yes, for listeners who are already used to judging the Austin lads according to the twistedly esoteric standards of «progressive rock», but I keep on insisting that that is a mistake — loud barrages of relatively generic heavy rock chords are usually ineffective when used as the basic foundation in «progressive» purposes. In other words, on Lost Songs they are locked in a perfect union with their reason for existence, whereas on Tao the connection was rather... uh... perverted.
There is very little that is actually new about the overall sound. A few of the tracks are notably faster than usual — including the already mentioned ʽUp To Infinityʼ, but especially ʽCatatonicʼ, propelled forward by a simple, but very distinctive blues-rock riff, one of those nasty little bastards that you feel you have already known for your entire life, yet can never pinpoint the exact source. The final track (ʽTime And Againʼ) is also unusual, in that it rests upon an acoustic bedrock, while at the same time running along at a good tempo and featuring plenty of electric overdubs — with a specific folk-rock vibe, to soothe the nerves and provide a slightly relaxing finale to the thunderstorm, this time, stormier than ever.
Not everything is equally memorable, but the songs do have their individualities. ʽOpen Doorsʼ is like a heroic Lieder-style opener — Keely's vocal parts match the instrumental chords to give you a fine opportunity to aggrandize your spirit while singing about how "this world is lost in suffering" and "we survive behind the times, we walk through blood to save the world" (okay, so these lyrics could have used fewer clichés, but remember, «bluntness» and «accessibility» was the main motto in the creation of the album). ʽOpera Obscuraʼ is all built on a ferocious tribal/martial drum pattern (war, baby, war) that very reluctantly fades away even after the song is over. The title track is unexpectedly poppy, with a thin, New Wave-era style riff winding its way through the thick drumming and getting intertwined with the catchy vocal chorus. The cool point of ʽFlower Card Gamesʼ is how its very simple, deep bassline and its very simple looped guitar riff complement each other — with a strong emission of ominousness in the process — and so on.
Yet I have to say that my favorite track here is still the one that comes closest to a «power ballad» status: ʽAwestruckʼ may have the most awe-striking instrumental mid-section these guys ever had the inspiration to come up with. Perfectly calculated, meticulously planned, the guitar melody, beginning as a weeping, quasi-countrified, slide solo, then turns into a series of rising and falling trills that epitomize beauty — like the ringing dreaminess of Cocteau Twins multiplied by the piercing loudness of The Edge. Not that the Austin lads never had this particular kind of sound before, but somehow, this is the first time it hit me that hard. Beautiful sequence — I almost wish the song were completely instrumental, since Keely's nasality can hardly do it justice.
Overall, it seems like this impulse to «get back to reality», crawl out of their fantasy worlds and find inspiration for their music directly from all the mountains of crap that surround us on all sides, if we only cared to look — seems like it worked for these guys. (For the record, it does not work for everyone: you are still supposed to have some real talent to burn before you start writing songs about the Arab Spring and global warming). So, here's hoping that complete and total paradise on Earth does not arrive before they plan on making their next record, and a healthy thumbs up in the meantime.
Check "Lost Songs" (MP3) on Amazon