Saturday, September 29, 2007

[059] Songs For The Deaf

Album: Songs For The Deaf
Artist: Queens of the Stone Age
Release Date: August 2002
Label: Interscope
Producers: Josh Homme, Eric Valentine, & Adam Kasper

"This is W.O.M.B.- The Womb,
And if you, my pets, learn to listen, I'll let you crawl back in.
Here is something you should drop to your knees for, and worship,
But you're too stupid to realize yourselves.
A song for the deaf - that is for you."
- Natasha Shneider as the radio DJ introducing the title track

Sometimes life gives you lemons, right?
I’m sitting here writing this in the dark. Well, it’s not literally dark, cuz the screen is on, but it’s dark because my power is out. I’m in NY, so it’s 10:45 PM, Thursday night, hot as a motherfucker with no A/C as I start this, but since my wireless router is also out, I won’t be able to post this until who knows when, so my apologies to the people that read these things with their Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’ll be posted a bit late, so you can enjoy it for your weekend. I’m typing on my girlfriend’s laptop by candlelight. I lit the candles with my Songs For The Deaf promotional matches, which I got at the best concert I ever attended: Queens of the Stone Age at Bowery Ballroom in NYC, with Dave Grohl on drums; I also salvaged half of Grohl’s setlist that night - only half because the rest disintegrated after Dave repeatedly doused himself with Poland Spring. The matchbook even has the original release date on the inside. I know this is bullshit to everyone but me, but somehow it’s fitting that I tried to write this entry this afternoon at work and had writer’s block, now I can just shoot from the hip by candlelight, lit by matches promoting the album I’m writing about. Coincidence? Yeah, OK, maybe I’m reaching, but there’s a vague parallel to Queens of the Stone Age’s place in the 2002 Hard Rock landscape, trying to stay afloat amongst the Nu Metal debris. They got nowhere by going the traditional routes, jumping on Ozzfest, etc., but they decide to keep to themselves, record a hands-down classic that plainly comments on the sad state of affairs for headbangers, and come up with a hit. Of course, Grohl on the skins didn’t hurt.

I know this album pretty much backwards and forwards, so I’m just gonna wing it and see what comes out. For me, the reason I love QOTSA is because they sound exactly like what a Hard Rock band should sound like, the exact midpoint between Led Zeppelin and The Stooges. What does that mean to you? I don’t know, maybe nothing. But what if I propose that (a) Hard Rock and Heavy Metal are as criminally ignored as Hip-Hop is, (b) and within that sad fact, Songs For The Deaf is the best Hard Rock album of the past 20 years. I hope you would say, ‘OK smarty-pants, prove it.' You got it. Without having to go over the entire history of the genre, I think we can agree that Metal got its reputation damaged with critics, journalists, etc. by the idiots in the 80's.; they made the genre cartoonish, and no matter how much a band like Poison talks about bangin’ groupies, the fact of the matter remains that they looked like the groupies they were after, and what teenage boy is going to want that as a role model? More than that, Hard Rock can be just as beautiful or exhilarating or crystalline - whatever the hundreds of adjectives record critics like to use - as Indie Rock or Electronica or Pop. And so we’re left with the two bands that got it right in these last 20 years: Metallica and Guns N’ Roses; they found the balance between tough and sexy, between punk fury, prog intricacy, and bluesy grime. We all know what happened with Metallica, and there’s a whole family tree of pretty good Metal, from Tool to Mastodon, in the 20 years since they put Newsted on the payroll. The only problem with them is that their good albums from the period we’re looking at here weren’t good enough to make the list. GNR on the other hand, well, they left us probably the greatest Hard Rock album of the last 30 years, if not ever, and then took a nosedive into the dirt. At the time, the guys following their lead weren’t so obvious - they were the guys in Seattle, but the vibe being put forth was different; Green River sounded like GNR because they were pulling from the same sources, but they didn’t aim for the same outcome. In the end, Pearl Jam just wanted to be on classic Rock radio, and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains took the sexiness and jettisoned it in favor of the self-doubt and mood swings of Goth. So, in many ways, with the post-Grunge 90's producing like maybe two or three good Hard Rock records, none of which are on this list, receiving a gift like Songs For The Deaf is long overdue. Bands from Stone Temple Pilots to post-haircut Metallica would’ve given their left nut to make this album; even the Foo Fighters’ weak One By One, released only a few months later, was an attempt at repeating this glory.

The album has a loose structure running through it that simulates driving through the sunburnt Californian desert, flipping from radio station to radio station. I’ve always taken this aspect of the album for granted because I usually skip through the skits & bits, but realize that the band recorded all of this - the guest DJ’s, all the background theme music. It’s by no accident that the album is a giant puzzle. There’s a great story about how Queens took a vacation from recording, and while they were out, Eric Valentine, the label-appointed producer, tried to assemble the album the way the record label wanted. But he couldn’t - the band had recorded so much, and arranged things so that only they knew where all the pieces fit. Paying attention to the jingles and slogans on the radio transmissions, not to mention the cornucopia of instruments scattered throughout, it must’ve been maddening to hear them one by one and not have any clue what you were listening to. Even the hit single “No One Knows” has a flute part in the chorus.

The band very significantly crafted a unified sound on Songs For The Deaf. Usually when I write about QOTSA, I talk at length about how Josh Homme orchestrated the proceedings, like they’re really just “Josh & The Queens”. But this album is the Queens album that feels most like it was made by a band. Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan get in just as many ideas and turns on the mic as Josh, and Grohl never feels like a hired gun. The band works more in the improvisational spirit of Homme’s Desert Sessions, pulling both the relentless “Millionaire”, sung by Oliveri, and Lanegan’s haunting “Hangin’ Tree” from the project, as well as inviting in a motley crew of guests, including Alain and Natasha from Eleven, Dean Ween, and Marilyn Manson’s Twiggy Ramirez. Somehow, the united core of the Homme-Oliveri-Grohl power trio doesn’t stifle the varied energies brought in by their guests or the different styles of the songs. The ear-splitting, wonderfully offensive “Six Shooter”, which was originally slated to open the album, is miles away from the swinging Prog-Rock of “The Sky Is Falling”, but they sit next to each other and play nice. The band sequenced the album like this, with a roller coaster of moods; the most Metal of the songs - the screaming apocalypse of the title track - is surrounded by the two most musically light ones, the 60's garage pop of Nick’s “Another Love Song” and the acoustic death march of Josh’s “Mosquito Song”.

The styles on the album are like a jukebox of all the best Hard Rock has to offer, and Queens tackle them all with aplomb. Mark Lanegan's "God Is In The Radio" slows ZZ Top's Texas boogie to a pulsating shuffle, while "Song For The Dead" bookends Lanegan's funeral blues and Homme's Eddie Hazel-esque solo with Dave Grohl's tribute to Descendents/Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson. Best of all is the Glam-Punk-Pop triple-punch of "Go With The Flow", "Gonna Leave You", and "Do It Again"; Josh & Nick excel at writing the kind of short, punchy Rock songs that would've been hit singles in the 70's, and these three, combining T.Rex, the Ramones, and Cheap Trick, are among their best. I think I'm going to stop writing now, because I could keep going all weekend. I didn't even get to the part about it being a great break-up album, with Josh & Nick's relationship problems heavily informing the lyrics, and Josh threatening to hire someone to off Nick's ex. You should watch the 3 short making-of videos for more fun. As long as you get the point that, even if you want to continue to underestimate Hard Rock, don't ignore this album. It's a must-have in your collection, even if just as a driving record, like the band intended.

00. "The Real Song For The Deaf" [unlisted hidden track]**
01. "You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire"
02. "No One Knows"
03. "First It Giveth"
04. "Song For The Dead"
05. "The Sky Is Fallin'"
06. "Six Shooter"
07. "Hangin' Tree"
08. "Go With The Flow"
09. "Gonna Leave You"
10. "Do It Again"
11. "God Is In The Radio"
12. "Another Love Song"
13. "Song For The Deaf"
14. "Mosquito Song"
** This is a hidden track in the CD's "pregap"; if you rewind past the beginning of the first track. “The Real Song For The Deaf” is the typical Queens joke; electronic noise with a super low frequency meant for the hearing impaired - the bass will rumble through your woofers so hard, that a deaf person could feel the vibrations. I played it in my car; it pretty much blew my speakers.

"...Millionaire" [live at the 2003 Rock Am Ring Festival]

"No One Knows" [video]

"Song For The Dead" [live at Big Day Out, Australia 2003]

The making of Songs For The Deaf
[from the bonus DVD included with the first pressings of the album]
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

- BONUS: "Millionaire" [live at the 2002 Visions Fest]
- BONUS: "No One Knows" [live at the Troubadour in LA, 03.02]
Dave Grohl's first show with QOTSA, during recording
- BONUS: "No One Knows" [live in London, 2005]
from the live CD/DVD Over The Years And Through The Woods
- BONUS: "First It Giveth" [video]
- BONUS: "Song For The Dead" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Sky Is Fallin'" [audio]
- BONUS: "Six Shooter" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Hangin' Tree" [live at the 2002 Visions Fest]
- BONUS: "Go With The Flow" [video]
- BONUS: "Go With The Flow" [live at Big Day Out, Australia 2003]
- BONUS: "Gonna Leave You" [live on Hard Rock Live]
- BONUS: "Do It Again" [live at the 2003 Hultsfred Festival, Sweden]
- BONUS: "God Is In The Radio" [live on Fuse's 7th Ave. Drop]
excerpt of the restructured 2005 version
- BONUS: "Another Love Song" [acoustic - live on the 91X Garage]
- BONUS: "Song For The Deaf" [live at the 2001 Bizarre Festival]
One of the first performances, with different lyrics
- BONUS: "Song For The Deaf" [live at Big Day Out, Australia 2003]

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