Dean Fertita, the guitarist and keyboard player for both Queens of the Stone Age and the Dead Weather, steps up to the mic for this latest project, which also features the backing of QOTSA members Michael Schuman (bass and vocals), Troy Van Leeuwen (bass) and Joey Castillo (drums). Van Leeuwen's own solo project, the utterly forgettable Sweethead, released its own eye-wateringly mediocre record in May 2010, so one might approach the project with some apprehension. As QOTSA spin-offs go, though, Hello=Fire, while hardly jaw-dropping, is a far more enjoyable outing in every way.
The album kicks off with a near-perfect trio of tunes. "Certain Circles" is a thumping rocker moored by a bouncing bass line overlaid with Fertita's sweet six-string-pulling and an array of guitar effects and synthesizer noodles. "Far From It" is the best song on the album, marrying moody keyboards to breathy, sly vocals, all overlaid a pulsating undertow that makes for an irresistible song. "She Gets Remote" is a straight-ahead power-pop anthem. More cowbell? You got it!
Fertita's singing doesn't have a great deal to make it stand out from any other mid-level rock 'n' roller; on the other hand, he usually, you know, hits the notes he's trying for. Also notable is the lack of extensive guitar soloing. There are plenty of sounds in the mix here, but they're generally worked in amid the verses and choruses. Solos are brief in some songs, and nonexistent in others.
After this opening trifecta, the band struggles. There are good songs to be had, but almost inevitably the fun dies down and a bit of rock-by-numbers creeps in. "Mirror Each Other" ups the tempo and the distortion, to not much effect, while mandatory ballad "Nature of Our Minds" fairly screams: "Look! Rocker dudes can be sensitive too!" Lyrics like "So I will see you when I see you / And I will tell you when I tell you" don't help things much.
Cowbell makes a much-appreciated return in the lively "She's Mine in Sorrow", while "Faint Notion" uses spiky guitars to good effect. About this time -- halfway through the record -- the listener realizes that keyboards and other incidental sounds are less in evidence than previously. This is a polite way of saying that the songs are all starting to sound the same. Generally, the back half of the album is weaker than the front, given a lack of standout tunes. By the same token, though, nothing really falls flat either. This is a good, competent rock album made by a set of good, competent rock musicians. "Someplace Spacious", "I Wanna Like You" and "They Wear Lightning" fit this description perfectly -- diverting enough to listen to, but eminently forgettable once they've ended.
Two exceptions to this are the short and punchy -- "Looking Daggers", bouyed by its frantically strummed acoustic guitars, and album closer "Parallel", with its mid-tempo groove, processed guitar tone and stoned-but-still-melodious vibe. "Parallel" fits nicely with the opening trio of strong songs, and it's a shame that the middle half of the album rarely rises above the level of decent, yet unmemorable riffage.