Sunday, June 17, 2007

Headphones: Queens of the Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

I never liked Josh Homme's original description for his band: robot rock. He spewed it in an interview at some point in 1997 or 1998, and it's always stuck. But it never fit. The Queens' music has always been too organic. The first three albums felt like the California desert that informs all of Homme's sun-damaged songwriting, and Lullabies To Paralyze ventured in the dark forests. They were somehow a roots-metal band, if that makes any sense. But now, with their fifth album, Era Vulgaris, Homme has recalibrated his band to actually sound, for the most part, like robot rock. It's a remarkably uneven album, infuriating and confusing at times. It advances the band's sound as experiments fail. It's one big contradiction.

The most mentionable aspect to the album is that it was written and recorded almost entirely in L.A./Hollywood. Right off the bat, it's the number one reason for the loss of the organic warmth and move towards a slicker, truly modern rock sound; Of course, you could argue this makes no sense since the only thing to change is the recording venue as Homme and Chris Goss oversee the process as usual. But the place is always in Homme's head; Songs For The Deaf was about the drive from L.A. to the Palm Desert, and it sounded as such. This is primarily an urban record; the upside to this is it highlights that most rock music out now has no feel at all, urban or otherwise. It's amazing to say that, somehow, the album does conjure the same vibes as a Hollywood classic like Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction, even if it doesn't come close to being that good. Some songwriters wear their hearts on their sleeves; Josh Homme wears his neighborhood.

Let's work backward: The tracks with the "newest" sound are "Sick, Sick, Sick", "I'm Designer", "Misfit Love" and "Battery Acid". The first thing that's clear is there's pretty much nothing out right now that sounds like this, but that doesn't mean they're successful. "I'm Designer" and "Misfit Love" emerge the most fully-formed, with the former wrapping a cyborg groove around a tabloid commentary, while the latter comes off as the band's heavy tribute to Michael Jackson's "Beat It", complete with falsetto and copped riffage in the intro; it will rank with QOTSA's best. On the other hand, "Battery Acid", the most "robotic" song on the album, is annoying and the one that makes me reach for the skip button most. While the band pummels the listener with riffs and drums, Homme lets loose with lyrics that never come together, a troubling trend on the album. It's a forgettable moment in the QOTSA discography and further illustrates that, working in direct opposition to Homme's exceptional melodic gifts, their heaviest moments are usually their worst (see Lullabies' beaten-dumb twins, "The Blood Is Love" & "Skin On Skin"). In this way, Era's closer "Run, Pig, Run" also fails, despite some excellent guitar work. It tries to do too much at once and squanders any chance of cohering.

It's starting to become evident, that despite their skill, the other full-time Queens, drummer Joey Castillo and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, might be a big part of the problem. A member since Dave Grohl returned to the Foo Fighters around the August 2002 release of Deaf, Castillo is a Heavy Metal drummer. He was in Danzig. His method is to pummel. Hard. I've heard him play light; he can do it, but it's not his instinct, and it seems like his playing pulls Homme back towards his metal past in Kyuss. Likewise, Van Leeuwen played in Failure and A Perfect Circle, the kind of slick, gloomy hard rock bands that make music that sound like this album and Lullabies. Despite being a real music fan, with his taste running from Bjork to The Cramps to Roy Orbison to Peaches to Cream, Josh Homme bounces his sound off his collaborators; former bassist Nick Oliveri seems more indispensable now than ever because his batshit-crazy punk and sunny 60's garage sounds meshed perfectly with Homme's aforementioned melodic skills. A song like first single "Sick, Sick, Sick" would sound totally different with Nick in the band. It might take the two great verses and the grand riff in-between, and have some fun. Instead, the muddled second half of the song jettisons the song's debauched fun and wastes guest Julian Casablancas.

Next, there are the songs that try to bridge the band's new direction with their old one, and these songs are also a mixed bag. "Run, Pig, Run" we've already covered; it's a mess, and sounds like a forgotten outtake from the last album. Likewise, "River In The Road" tries to recall the psychedelic swirl of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" but its vocals are just too monochromatic, losing Mark Lanegan in the hurricane of guitar lines and the martial beat (I even think there's a balalaika in there). Opener "Turnin' On The Screw" tries to revisit the choppy, layered sound of "Leg Of Lamb" from Rated R, but falters; the lyrics think they're smart but aren't, and a bungee riff used nicely for one measure in the beginning of the song is repeated for far too long later on, causing the song to overstay its welcome by at least a minute. "Suture Up Your Future" is the most troubling track on the album because it could've been really good if it weren't for its terrible lyrics. Musically, it works well with the new sounds, but because of the classic song structure, it reaches back for the old Queens, and in the process, the hybrid result comes out like a glam/goth ballad. "3's & 7's" is by far the best track on the album, kicking off with a riff reminiscent of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", but brighter, featuring strong lyrics, and utilizing the chugging, stripped, slightly disjointed style that so many of QOTSA's classic tunes feature.

And finally, there's the two songs that will feel most at home for longtime fans. The requisite Desert Sessions redux, "Make It Wit Chu" is pretty much exactly like the original, but like "In My Head" from Lullabies, unfortunately loses some of the original's verve and life. "Into The Hollow" is much better though, ranking alongside "3's & 7's" and "Misfit Love" as the album's highlights. Based on a runaway train groove, it's a soaring ballad that would've been the perfect centerpiece for Lullabies To Paralyze's dark fairy tale narrative. In the end, Era Vulgaris adds up to a hopeful disappointment. It's good to hear the Queens trying to branch out and explore new sounds, because that's more than most hard rock bands are doing, but it's just sad that they weren't more successful this time out. Josh should oil the robot's joints. Instead of blaring out of my open car windows all summer long, it will unfortunately get a few weeks play before being filed away on the shelf in favor of the great new discs by The White Stripes and Spoon...and probably QOTSA, Rated R, and Songs For The Deaf.

Raz's Ratings
MUSIC: Queens Of The Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

...We can save it. We have the technology. Where Era Vulgaris goes wrong, the band goes right, bestowing upon the music geeks of the internet who have initiative no less than six non-album tracks to create our own Era Vulgaris summer mix. The other tracks are the album outtakes "Era Vulgaris" (featuring Trent Reznor) and the orchestral "Running Joke", three covers: Tom Waits' "Goin' Out West", Elliott Smith's "Christian Brothers", and Billy Idol's "White Wedding", and finally, a re-recorded version of the epic "lost" Lullabies track "The Fun Machine Took A Shit And Died". All of these songs are better and more fun than half of the new album, so take from that what you will. Plus, there's also a remix of "I'm Designer", and acoustic versions of "3's & 7's", "Into The Hollow" and "Suture Up My Future", so you can check those out too.

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