Queens of the Stone Age, Villains: Casting Roles

queens of the stone age villains

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If this is the company Homme is looking to keep, it’s entirely possible he’s found the right moment to do so. Without the label-reinforced pay-to-play structure of radio promotion as in decades past, pop culture is sorely lacking in rockers — though it seems to be getting along just fine without, and rockers seem to be doing the same in more underground spheres. The question becomes whether Homme‘s Warhol-esque willful adoption of style as substance as presented throughout Villains is the right message to send that inevitable next generation of would-be actual-guitar heroes, and that, of course, is an entirely different debate.

While there’s something inherently cloying about the process of appealing toward mainstream legitimacy — Homme wants that next number-one chart position, wants the thus-far-elusive Grammy — it’s worth noting that Queens of the Stone Age are doing so on their own terms. The first lines of opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” come from Homme speaking about being born in the desert, and whether it’s the frantic “Head Like a Haunted House” with its playful call and response of “You okay?” and “I’m fine,” or the handclap-laden shimmy and buzzsaw tone of “The Way You Used to Do,” Villains feels in no small part built from similar impulses that drove the swaggering but still ironic “Smooth Sailing” from …Like Clockwork. A key difference between that record and this one, however, is in the narrative crux and the urgency of expression. The story there was Homme had nearly died in surgery, had just gotten through suing his former Kyuss bandmates and was making a return to Queens of the Stone Age after several years away that included releasing the self-titled debut from supergroup power trio Them Crooked Vultures (review here). The story here is, as the guitarist has said, he’s over all that and just wants to dance.

Not exactly compelling, but fair enough. Add to that the fact that where …Like Clockwork wasn’t shy about bringing in guests like Sir Elton John, Nine Inch Nails figurehead Trent Reznor and even former Queens of the Stone Age/Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri (also Mondo Generator, Vista Chino, etc.) for guest appearances, Villains is a completely in-house affair for the five-piece, which even with the measure or two of Oliveri-esque screams that someone — presumably Shuman, but don’t quote me — adds to the end of the maddeningly catchy “Domesticated Animals” positions Homme all the more as the defining presence in the band. Whatever else van Leeuwen — who is otherwise the longest-tenured member of the band, having joined 15 years ago around the release of 2002’s ultra-seminal Songs for the DeafShuman, Fertita or Theodore add to the mix, Villains finds the group more about Homme than ever.

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He’s more than capable of carrying the band, but after the slow build into the wistfully poppy “Fortress,” which proves to be a highlight of the album as a whole after the these-are-the-singles opening salvo of “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” “The Way You Used to Do” and “Domesticated Animals,” and the aforementioned thrusting centerpiece “Head Like a Haunted House,” Villains — almost following the structure of the preceding album in a way that 2005’s Lullabies to Paralyze was in direct conversation with Songs for the Deaf before it — moves deeper into its second half, marked by the longer songs “Un-Reborn Again,” “The Evil Has Landed” and the finale “Villains of Circumstance,” each of which tops six minutes. Again, …Like Clockwork functioned similarly, with pieces like “Kalopsia,” “Fairweather Friends” and “I Appear Missing” (which weren’t all necessarily longer, but were broader nonetheless) before a subdued closing title-track. “Un-Reborn Again” stomps and struts behind a keyboard line and buzzing guitar as Homme taps his inner Elvis even as he references Georgia Satellites in the lyrics and is the longest cut on Villains at 6:41, but stays even in its bounce and offers little in terms of build or emotional resonance.

A more melancholy vibe that persists in the shorter “Hideaway” (4:21), again marked by the heavy use of Fertita‘s keyboards, would seem to be filling this role, but the earlier “Fortress” did so in more memorable fashion and with greater nuance of melody and arrangement. It functions to bring Villains back to ground after “Un-Reborn Again,” but feels as much about setting up the turn into “The Evil Has Landed,” which feels intended as the rocking finish before the emotive epilogue “Villains of Circumstance” plays to ’80s pop and New Wave the way the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things was so chock full of nostalgia for a time that only debatably earned it. Indeed, “The Evil Has Landed” has its moment of drive toward the end, but works in three stages to get there, swaying through bopping early verse/chorus trades and a somewhat meandering solo section before shifting back into the hook and bridging to a faster push that, while marked by Homme crooning “Here we go” after a punctuating drum stop, still feels restrained in its tonal impact compared to some of the group’s time-to-go-all-out moments in the past, whether that’s “A Song for the Deaf” or even “Suture up Your Future” from 2007’s Era Vulgaris.

Longtime listeners of the band hoping Homme might “go back” to his roots and the modus of LPs like Queens of the Stone Age‘s 1998 self-titled debut, 2000’s Rated R or Songs for the Deaf that’s proven to have so wide an influence on desert rock around the world are dreaming. That time, that lineup, and those motives are long gone, and there’s very little in Villains that won’t feel toothless to anyone who approaches it looking for them, up to and including the ending of “The Evil Has Landed” and “Villains of Circumstance,” the relatively scorching guitar of “Domesticated Animals” or the rhythmic focus of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “The Way You Used to Do.”

What Homme and company present instead is a successful realization of their stated mission — to dance — and a collection of ultra-crafted songs that reimagine pop as something that just might not shy away from rocking out every now and again. I have no idea if it will get them a Grammy, or top whatever chart it might be aiming for, or cast Homme as a generation-defining rockstar of his age — one could easily argue this already happened a decade and a half ago — but on a basic level of craft, Queens of the Stone Age continue to be a singular presence in rock’s broadest sphere, and Villains offers plenty to remind its audience of how they got there.

Queens of the Stone Age, “The Evil Has Landed”

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5 Responses to “Queens of the Stone Age, Villains: Casting Roles”

  1. Ricardo says:

    Have loved them since their beginning and they have managed to be consistently great over the years and a multitude of albums-whereas the average great band still manages to put out a stinker by about at least their 3rd to 5th album which they have wonderfully avoided.

    However, while I will not say they have jumped the shark just yet, this album almost does it due to the horrible choice to have Mark Ronson produce it. There are a few good tracks out of the 9 but the production is just dreck-so tinny and thin and inconsequential-just no power behind it and in addition the hooks are not all that substantial. So sad. Hopefully they rebound on their next album in a few years but this release does not bode well for the future.

  2. nick d says:

    love your subtle hover-over commentary on the cover art jj :D

  3. Milk Man says:

    As usual, insightful and enjoyable review Mr. JJ. I found it really interesting how you got the job done and keep your distance at getting emotional about the whole trip Homme is having.

  4. LA says:

    Excellent album! Their best since Songs For The Deaf. Who gives a shit who produced it.

    • Ricardo says:

      Who gives a shit who produced it? Lots of people do. Why are the two Joy Division albums now so iconic? Not really because that foursome was writing amazing songs but because Martin Hannett took those songs to a completely different level as the PRODUCER.

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