Not Just Stoner Anymore
It’s one of those inimitable, split-second moments of pure rock and roll that you can experience at home: You’re sitting at the computer, and you pop the new Queens of the Stone Age CD into your stereo. You hear a car door close, and a radio flick on, and a phony radio DJ chimes in (“KLON, clone radio, we play more of the songs that sound like everyone else”) as the first beats of the first song begin. The drums sound oddly muted, as does the guitar when it starts a few bars later. So, you innocently turn up the volume six, seven, 12 notches, and—KA-POW!—Nick Oliveri is screaming in your ear at an ungodly volume: “Dead buuull with the life from the looow / I’ll be massive conquistaDOORRR!!!” It’s one of those glorious moments that only happen once, and within minutes you’re telling your friends, “Hey, play the first track loud!” as you reach for the repeat button.
Songs for the Deaf, the most hotly anticipated hard rock album of the year, is finally out, as the California-based Queens (comprised of guitarist Josh Homme and bassist Nick Oliveri, both formerly of Kyuss, part-time vocalist and ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan, and the incomparable Dave Grohl on drums) attempt to follow up on their hyped-by-the-British-media, sleeper hit Rated R from two years ago. Boasting such insanely catchy songs as “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” and “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret”, Rated R was a fuzzed-out, yet taut record that attempted to take the whole stoner rock genre to new territory, featuring such instruments as lap steel guitar, piano, baritone sax, and full horn sections. As ambitious as the sound is on that record, it was still a straight-ahead rock album, and for the most part, simple and catchy. The lengthy, ambitious closing song “I Think I Lost My Headache”, however, hinted at what the Queens of the Stone Age had in store for us in the future.
As great and instantly satisfying as its first three songs are, Songs for the Deaf turns out to be an album that’s a bit of a challenge to get into right away (you know, one of those “stylistically all over the map” albums), but the album gets off to such a brilliant, rousing start that you feel compelled to sit through the entire thing to hear the rest: the superbly titled “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” is the explosive opening track I described earlier, a dead perfect stoner rock anthem, complete with trashy B-movie lyrics, and a thunderous beat anchored by Grohl and accented with handclaps (now who doesn’t like handclaps in a song?). Josh Homme’s trademark guitar riffs and relaxed vocals dominate the sensational, slinky “No One Knows”, singing spaced-out lines like “I drift along the ocean/Dead lifeboats in the sun/And come undone”, before the song suddenly halts as Oliveri takes off on a bass solo; the band comes in again, this time with horns in the background, swirling higher and higher as the song comes to an “A Day in the Life”-like climax. The pummeling “First It Giveth” follows, Homme’s falsetto and vocal harmonies counterbalancing the band’s monolithic performance.
At this point, the album heads off on what is an interesting tangent that will fascinate old-school metal devotees, and frustrate people looking for simple, single-oriented songs. Count me in the former category. “Song for the Dead” starts off sounding like another chuggin’ stoner tune, but then breaks down into a menacing-dirge-like tune, as vocalist Mark Lanegan makes his first appearance, his fine voice sounding rougher than it’s ever sounded, complementing the dark tone of his lyrics (“If you’re hanging around/I’m holdin the noose”). More progressive rock than stoner, “Song for the Dead” shows the Queens at peak form. “The Sky Is Fallin’” shifts gears, with dreamy vocals by Homme (“Close your eyes and see the skies are falling”) and a beautiful, melodic bassline by Oliveri that carry the song. After Oliveri does his best howling on the 80-second punk-meets-Captain Beefheart “Six Shooter”, Lanegan shows up again on “Hangin’ Tree”, where Grohl is kept busy driving a stuttering, 5/4 beat. The nasty “God Is In the Radio” begins with a pulsating bassline and one piano note repeating, before oozing into a bluesy, swinging beat, Homme’s incomparable, distorted guitar, with its warm, pure, smooth tone, sounding its best. The album comes to a spectacularly dank close on “Song for the Deaf”, with its classic, Sabbath-like riffs and lead fills, Oliveri’s churning, ultra-low bass, and Grohl’s drumming sounding simply ominous. Definitely not the feel good hit of this summer, but one that will make prog-rock fans freak.
But I can’t forget about the simple rock and roll, and Songs for the Deaf has plenty of quality, simpler tunes. “Gonna Leave You” has a circa-1980 New Wave feel, while “Do It Again” combines an extremely catchy, melodic chorus with a simple, one-chord riff and straight-outa-the-‘80s “hey!“‘s. The infectious ‘60s garage rock of “Another Love Song” comes in from way over in left field, sounding like a leftover from the 13th Floor Elevators’ catalog, with Oliveri delivering a surprisingly effective vocal performance that, for once, is not just all screaming. “Go with the Flow” is typical Queens fare, a quick-paced, piano-accented song that races along.
A question that immediately comes to mind when listening to the album is, “Why isn’t Dave Grohl drumming more often?” On Songs for the Deaf he sounds like he never stopped drumming; his powerful playing pushed right up front in the album’s mix and sounding virtually devoid of any reverb (much like Dave Lombardo’s drumming on Slayer’s 1988 South of Heaven album). Some may think that it’s a drum sound that doesn’t suit Grohl’s trademark thunderous style, but this isn’t a Nirvana record. The Queens have developed their own trademark sound on record over the past few years, and Grohl is just filling the role of Queens drummer, and he does so flawlessly. Sadly, Grohl has opted to continue playing guitar with his embarrassingly awful Foo Fighters, playing the same hackneyed, Alan Parsons Project-go-grunge dreck, that, ironically, is the exact kind of lunkheaded, brainless, radio-friendly pap that Homme and Oliveri are railing against on this album. Stick to the drumming, pal. It’s where you belong.
Peppered throughout the album are more of the same ironic, fake radio broadcasts that opened the CD, and while the target (the lack of good music heard on the radio) is much too easy, and one that has been done to death, and is something that will annoy some listeners, I don’t have a problem with it at all. In fact, the short breaks provide the listener with a bit of a breather from all the wild stylistic changes. What I’m not very fond of are the two hidden tracks on the album. “The Real Song for the Deaf”, which can be found by searching backwards at the very start of the CD, is nothing but a minute and a half of self-indulgent techno twiddling. The lengthy, spaghetti western-sounding “Mosquito Song”, found at the end, with guest Dean Ween on vocals, sounds more like a Ween song than a Queens of the Stone Age song, and it’s something that this album doesn’t need. The title track is a brilliant way to end the album, not this wankery that leaves us wondering whether they’re joking or not.
But hey, they’re just hidden tracks, so let them stay hidden. The “official” album tracks are what count, and what an explosive collection of songs this is. It’s clear that the Queens of the Stone Age are making an all-out bid for rock stardom, but many curious first-time listeners will be take aback by the route the band has chosen to take. Whether or not Songs for the Deaf manages to break through to the ever-fickle TRL crowd remains to be seen; those people with the patience to sit through this remarkable album a few times, though, will know the score.
Oh, and be sure to play that first track friggin’ loud, man.
The first pressing of Songs for the Deaf includes a great bonus DVD, featuring over half an hour’s worth of studio footage, interviews, and some excerpts from a blistering performance at L.A.‘s Troubador club in March 2002.