I?ve tried my damnedest to not give in to the viral hype machine that has been at work for months promoting Them Crooked Vultures, leaking snippets of songs via YouTube and quietly putting the word out about secret shows and the like. The band just showing up places and playing; a luxury afforded to the trio by their celebrity status and respective built-in fanbases. That said, if there?s anything Queens of the Stone Age?s Songs for the Deaf taught us it?s that good things happen when Joshua Homme and Dave Grohl get together. Throw John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin in the mix on bass and, well, it?s at very least an interesting proposition.
The resulting album, the product, released on maybe the most major of labels (Interscope/Geffen, both subsidiaries of Universal), is a 13-track romp through the rigors of modern commerciability, toying with our single-based culture even as it conforms to it. There is no coincidence that ?No One Loves Me and Neither Do I? is among the catchiest songs on Them Crooked Vultures; what?s really interesting about it is the fact that it?s also among the most ?stoner rock,? which, if you?re paying attention, quietly affirms the untapped commercial potential of the genre at large. Likewise, that follow-up ?Mind Eraser, No Chaser? features prominent vocals from Grohl along with Homme?s lead is clearly purposeful. Someone, be it label or band, thinks these are the strongest tracks, and so they?re up front, catching our limited, fickle attention. Cynicism is everywhere.
Stoner rockers will no doubt link Them Crooked Vultures to the 1998 self-titled Queens of the Stone Age. I will, anyway. Like that album, there is a full, natural sense of room in this recording. You can almost feel the mic being pulled just a little back from the amps to open up the sound. It?s high-tech garage with Alan Moulder and Alain Johannes recording, but nonetheless at work is a precision in songwriting the likes of which could only come from pairing the likes of Homme and Grohl — and that?s not to downplay Jones? considerable contributions either vocally or on bass. As to the individual members? contributions to each part of each song, I don?t know and refuse to speculate, but in listening, pieces of highlight tracks like ?Dead End Friends,? the appropriately stomping ?Elephants? (one of the album?s longer cuts at a bold 6:50) and the danceably handclapped, mellotronned ?Caligulove,? shades of personality leak through the songs that could be attributed more or less as the listener chooses.
That approach, of course, has expected benefits and drawbacks. If you?re going to sit and parse through each riff, each drum fill, each bass line, you?re going to miss out on the fun. One thing Them Crooked Vultures aren?t doing is pushing pop to places it hasn?t gone before. In terms of stoner rock (because those are the terms on which we deal with these things, for better or worse), the pop structures and songwriting aren?t necessarily any better than showed up with The Atomic Bitchwax?s TAB4, but Homme?s chic swagger, Jones? legacy and Grohl?s go-anywhere-anytime drumming elevate Them Crooked Vultures to a different level of presentation. There is as much about this album that is good because of who it is as there is because of what it is.
But if you want catchy, they?ve got it. ?Scumbag Blues,? the unexpected twist of ?Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up,? ?Reptiles? are all memorable and infectious. The album is not without its filler material, though. What would have been lost by dropping the disco rock of ?Gunman,? or making it some kind of promotional download or independent stores only single or whatever they?re doing with non-album tracks these days, I don?t know. Them Crooked Vultures is as cohesive as you?d expect — hard not to hear moments where the band is reaching to find itself and subsequently imbue the narrative of ?this must be earlier in the writing? — and certainly an enjoyable listen, rife with standout grooves and lines that will burrow into your brain whether you want them to or not. But at the end of the day, it?s a pop record, albeit one you can dig into as a fan of underground heavy rock and roll. It?s important to keep this in mind since so much of the pre-release opinion has centered more on the band as an event rather than a gathering of three accomplished players.
By way of a bottom line, if you go into the album expecting to like it, you probably will. There?s nothing about Them Crooked Vultures to shirk off its appeal, ?Interlude with Ludes? notwithstanding, and the novelty of the band is fresh and central to the experience of listening. Whether this is going to be a one-off happening or a new band, I don?t know, but if they were to return with a sophomore outing, particularly in light of Homme?s tendency to squash expectation on second records (Kyuss? Blues for the Red Sun and Queens of the Stone Age?s Rated R walk by and wave), it would be intriguing to see the varied directions in which the project can go. For now, don?t think about it. Listen and have a good time.
Tags: Interscope, Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures