A couple of unexpected musical surprises have infiltrated my iPod in the last week.
The first was the new album from ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, entitled Lost Songs.
One never knows quite what to expect with Trail of Dead. Ten years ago, they released the universally acclaimed Source Tags and Codes, which followed the also-pretty-decent Madonna. It was a great album in a year of excellent releases off the beaten track - that year we also had The Music's self-titled debut (a peak they sadly never managed to repeat), Down's outstanding second album, and the mighty Songs for the Deaf (ironically, ten years later, Dave Grohl is now back playing drums for Queens of the Stone Age on their new album following Joey Castillo's departure). Anyway, one of the many great things about ST&C is that Trail of Dead struck an exceptional balance between hard hitting and wistful, energetic and restrained, tight and sprawling.
It sort of went downhill from Trail of Dead after that though. Follow-up album Worlds Apart started with a hiss and a roar with the brilliant Will You Smile Again? (bonus points for the stupendously good intro in 5/4 time) but from that point on Trail of Dead started a downward tilt, with nothing to write home about on the rest of that album or the next two.
So I was caught a little off guard by last year's Tao of the Dead. Having essentially written this band off, an 'epic prog rock concept album' had 'potential disaster' written all over it. Except it actually turned out to be very good. Colour me once again a Trail of Dead fan, albeit tentative. And it was in that frame of mind that I approached Lost Songs.
One thing you can never accuse Trail of Dead of is being lazy or afraid to experiment. ST&C and Tao were good for exactly the same reasons that some of their other material was forgettable - some experiments turn out great and others inevitably flop.
It's probably no real surprise then that Lost Songs sounds almost entirely different to its direct predecessor. In fact, Lost Songs largely eschews the sprawling, progressive aesthetic in favour of an unashamedly direct, almost punk approach. And it's really, really good. From the outset, there's considerably more emphasis on riffs, shouting, distortion and crash cymbals than we've heard from this band in quite some time, but it's balanced out well by the occasional mid-song wistful meander.
There's still hints of prog, most notably on the mid-album melancholic groove of Flower Card Games. But in general, the riffs are big, the drumming is fast with plenty of tom rolls and rapid-fire snare, and the choruses are best shouted. It never really feels unrelenting or repetitive though, thanks to the occasional atmospheric diversion. And there's a few huge euphoric moments too that recall tracks like Days of Being Wild - most notably Bright Young Things.
Overall, a very enjoyable album and I'd almost go so far as to call myself a Trail of Dead fan once again.
Moving along, the second unexpected surprise is the new P.O.S. album, We Don't Even Live Here. To be clear, this was unexpected purely because I forgot it was coming out and I'd preordered it from Amazon. I had few doubts that it was going to be a good listen though - Never Better was one of my favourite albums of 2009, and last year's Doomtree album (of which P.O.S. is a member) was also very good.
As an album it's well put together, with an easy flow from one track to the next and no weak moments. There's nothing perhaps as instantly stand-out as Drumroll (We're All Thirsty) from Never Better, but the album as a whole is a real grower and there are still some pretty exceptional tracks - most notably Lock-picks, Knives, Bricks and Bats, and the propulsive Weird Friends (We Don't Even Live Here).
I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop these days but I still can't help but feel that P.O.S. doesn't seem to get the props that his music deserves. We Don't Even Live Here sees P.O.S. consistently delivering some clever, insightful lyrics combined with some great and often unique production.
When it comes to hip-hop in 2012, We Don't Even Live Here is right up there for me with El-P's Cancer 4 Cure. Intelligent, different and consistently good.