Sunday, November 15, 2009

We're Gonna Groove

There's no way to preface this except thusly: prepare for a massive JPJ geek-out.

Two momentous events this coming Tuesday: one, of course, being the publication of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, the former vice presidential candidate's memoir of early years spent siphoning superpowers from her fellow mutants. More importantly, the Rockaliser-endorsed supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, a band that does not deny the existence of evolution, will drop their eponymous debut officially, a week after the entire album was leaked by the band and put on Youtube.

I've been listening to the album quite a lot in the last week, but I've yet to try and review the thing because I am honestly too overwhelmed. I also feel as if I lack a certain critical distance, seeing as I dearly, dearly love all the members of this band and was fairly certain that they would pull together a monster of an album. I was right.

Supergroups have a sketchy history, to say the least: for every awesome act like the Good, the Bad, and the Queen, you get a Chickenfoot or a Velvet Revolver. It goes without saying that even the most talented musicians won't necessarily gel together as a group, but reading about Them Crooked Vultures, it seemed to me to be very unlikely that they wouldn't sound awesome together. Obviously Grohl and Homme already work supremely well together (QOTSA was never better than in Songs For The Deaf). Grohl is the biggest power-hitter since Bonham passed away (and they seriously should have gotten him to play at the Led Zeppelin reunion this past year instead of Bonham's underwhelming son Jason). Homme, meanwhile, is the master of low-key (and low-C) riff blues, with a sense of rhythm and style that puts him more or less ahead of every other hard rock guitarist this decade. And John Paul Jones is, of course, the kind of guy who makes already good music seem severely better. So the fact that this album is good is not shocking.

Forgive me if I devolve into Jack Black-style paroxysms and start exhorting about "the redeeming power of ROCK!" or whatever. When you come across tunes as good as this, you want to share them with the world.

1. "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I." Grohl begins the album with a deceptively laid-back beat, accompanied by some gnarly but by no means extraordinary slide work (think "In My Time of Dying"). The first three minutes continue this rather boilerplate hard-blues pattern, with Homme singing typical nonsense. Then, at roughly 2:45, the song morphs into what basically amounts to headbanger crack. It's not the most smooth of transitions, but when the change comes, the musicians coil together like three snakes in a big snake orgy, and the groove is basically unstoppable. It evolves from slightly flaccid into a straight barnstormer, with the last 20 seconds really standing out.

2. "Mind Eraser, No Chaser." Yeah, there are a lot of song titles like these. This was one of the songs that was leaked a bit earlier than the rest of the album, and it provides a good introduction to Them Crooked Vultures' more rhythmically tricky MO. John Paul Jones' bass line sounds at first almost assembly-line snug, but when the chorus happens, he is as game as the rest of the band in going in and out of lockstep. I should admit that I won't concentrate on Homme's lyrics very much because they are his usual sort of discombobulated come-ons that lack any sort of internal structure. Nevertheless, I like his singing, and I was pleased to hear Grohl back him up on vocals during the chorus, something that I don't think happened at all in Songs For The Deaf (for shame!). The electronic effects in the middle don't work so well, but love the oompah number at the end.

3. "New Fang." This was one of the songs we discussed in our first "Critical Beatdown" column. I gave it 4.5 stars at the time, and while I'll stick with that rating, I think the song works far, far better as an album track than a standalone single. The tricked-out slide guitar works through the bridges like a knife through butter, but Homme's fat rhythm-playing is in its way even more impressive. And again, JPJ is just a machine on tracks like this.

4. "Dead End Friends." Whereas this song at least sounds the most like a single, while at the same time it's also the most Queensy. If you want to classify any of these songs to who is obviously the most dominant instrumental force, this one is unquestionably Homme's. It's still limber and intelligent rock, which probably deserves to be fleshed out more. Maybe I'm just so overwhelmed by the tricky rhythms and relentless Grohl-pummeling that songs like these seem less impressive by comparison.

5. "Elephants." Apt song title. Insane knife-edge rhythms and riffs, all threatening to come apart at any moment (and probably would with musicians of lesser caliber). None of the song is as exciting as the first thirty seconds or so, making this kind of the inverse, dynamically, of "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I." Still, we get the first of what are about five extremely Zeppelin-sounding moments, with what I guess qualifies as the chorus, utilizing some beautiful descending harmonies courtesy of Homme. Then it picks up again, and ends in a rather perfect, adrenaline-soaked denouement.

6. "Scumbag Blues." Nominally a blues piece by any standard, with a chorus that sounds like a 4/4 remix of the Mission: Impossible theme, "Scumbag Blues" is such a musically tense enterprise that I can imagine casual Zeppelin or Nirvana fans finding this suffocating by comparison. The aforementioned chorus helps, but damn if those three people aren't just clearly and cogently in sync, in the best possible way. With time changes that out-math even Zeppelin's most complicated stuff, it's even made more bizarre by the fact that John Paul Jones decides to add a "Trampled Underfoot"-style funk keyboard solo in the middle of this punishing riffery. Does it work? Absolutely. But it's also kind of terrifying.

7. "Bandoliers." Along with "Dead End Friends," this is the most straight-ahead "modern rock" one will find on the album. It is strongly, strongly reminiscent of a certain breed of post-punk that became popular in the mid-'00s--think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol for the most obvious comparisons. The only difference being that the former never had a bassist and the latter never had a bassist who went all over the fret board as Jones does here. There's some very nice Dave Grohl moments toward the minute, where he gets some time to trick up the beat and really nail home some grooves. Jones once again proves his magic with some keyboard work similar to "In The Evening" (we shall see its like again).

8. "Reptiles." If "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I" was crack for headbangers, "Reptiles" is just crack for Zeppelin fans in general. Particularly the type of fan who listens to Presence and In Through the Out Door on a regular basis (me). Part "Travelin' Riverside Blues" and part "South Bound Saurez" (I know, hardly the most indicative tracks, but you seriously have to hear it), "Reptiles" is awash in Jimmy Page chimy slide overdubs and a Bonham-esque steadiness that evokes his playing in "The Ocean." And the chorus is simply one of the best on the album, a slide-infused pastoral chugger with sweet harmonies, and Jones basically mangling his bass. I believe there is also some backwards guitar somewhere in here. The one thing that isn't very Zeppelin-sounding is Homme's vocals, which are actually kind of diabolical and scary (we shall see their like again, as well).

9. "Interlude With Ludes." This is, as it suggests, a brief respite from eight tracks of power-trio punishment. Although Grohl provides some very spacey and avant-garde drum fills, the music is obviously a John Paul Jones keyboard creation, and while it's not something I would probably listen to on its own, it is sublime as far as "interludes" go. If you can handle how obviously silly the song is deliberately meant to be, you're more likely to appreciate the "la la la" vocals and Jones' tricked-out keytar.

10. "Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up." At first it sounds like a more typical Queens (or even Kyuss) riff-grinder, with Homme up to his usual detuned tricks. But the chorus is something different. There's the falsettos, for one thing, but John Paul Jones seems to be behind an orchestra of noises, in addition to his note-perfect bass-playing. I'm afraid I'm already forgetting my rule of not gushing too much, but I defy you to just concentrate on John Paul Jones, to appreciate how dynamic and yet how stealthy he is. I always knew this guy was one of the best, but maybe he truly deserves to be ranked on top. Also notable: a longer-than-usual solo from Homme, which is more of an excuse for the three of them to stretch out their time-keeping skills simultaneously. 99% of the time, this is surely sketchy, but with these three, it's a foregone conclusion that this will work. This is a song with a breakdown that truly rules.

11. "Caligulove." Despite the awesome title, the song isn't quite up to that standard. Whereas most other tracks are a bit more fleet-footed, this is, well, traditional. Which is not to say that there aren't some odd dynamic shifts and instrumental passages. Here, we get what sounds like a marimba, plus some more eastern-infused keyboard playing from Mr. Jones. I would guess Caligula would find a song like "Scumbag Blues" more to his flavor. This is less a song than a collection of cool parts that at times are ill-fitting.

12. "Gunman." Grohl, Homme and Jones may have invented a whole new genre of malevolent Halloween party blues. With a riff that is aptly described by Youtube user "MetroidOOx" as "wuh wo wow wu waga waga wau woo!", this is the kind of groove that is often described by respectable critics as "shit-hot." Grohl gets a brilliant moment to himself, keeping time aided by what seems like electronically-treated drums straight out his contributions to Nine Inch Nails. But it's really about the awesome detuned riffing, one of Homme's best pure guitar moments ever. I have no idea how he would play this live--it sounds like some phaser/wah-wah action--but I would really, really like to see it.

13. "Spinning In Daffodils." First, Jones breaks out a romantic-flavored piano opening that absolutely rips (as we should know by now he always does), which segues into some Dave Grohl tom-playing that sounds briefly like Bonham's intro to "In The Evening." The rest of the song is basically a mighty Queens-type riff. Queens of the Stone Age albums almost always end with these slower blues-riff scorchers, and this album isn't different. I must say, part of the awesomeness of this song has to do with the fact that Homme is singing a song about dancing in daffodils, and it makes me want to do the same. It does get kind of repetitive after a while. Nevertheless: beautiful final 30 seconds.

Overall, I give this album an A+ for effort, and an A+ for execution! I know it must seem like I am extremely easy to please, but I would suggest holding your criticisms until you actually listen to the album. Which, again, comes out on Tuesday. I expect a litany of "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I"-related neck injuries by this time next week.

1 comment:

  1. Well, you've certainly made me want to hear it.

    Glad to hear you give it up for TGTB&TQ, whose album is at least as exciting as anything Gorillaz did.