Counterbalance: Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘…Like Clockwork’

And I know you'll never believe I play this as though I’m all right. If life is but a dream, then wake me up. The latest from Queens of the Stone is this week’s Counterbalance.
Queens of the Stone Age
...Like Clockwork

Mendelsohn: There are a couple of things from my formative years that I still find myself drawn to, despite my better judgment. I’ve long since moved away from the shock rock, the gratuitous riffage, and mindless jabbering of so many of the hard rock, neo-hard rock, alternative rock, industrial rock, and metal bands whose posters used to hang on teenage Mendelsohn’s walls. And yet I sometimes find myself gravitating to those musical elements that, for better or worse, are a part of my musical history. Strike the right tone, bring the heavy guitar licks, and I might give you a chance. If your name happens to be Josh Homme, so much the better, because if it is, I will inevitably listen to whatever album you just made and, more often than not, I will like it — a lot.

I don’t know what it is about Josh Homme and his bands, especially Queens of the Stone Age, that I find so entrancing. And I find their latest effort, …Like Clockwork, to be a mostly entrancing affair full of dirty, salacious guitar-driven swaggering rock. So entrancing that I can almost look past the flaws of this album — mainly that it insists on slowing things down and wallowing at a much slower, much quieter pace more than I would prefer.

What do you prefer, Klinger? Queens of the Stone Age or no Queens of the Stone Age?

Klinger: To tell you the truth, this is a group that had been on my to-do list. I’ve seen Josh Homme hobnobbing with the major players, and ultimately become one himself, so I knew I should pay attention at some point, but for whatever reason I just hadn’t gotten to it. (Maybe I had heard Homme’s previous band Kyuss called “stoner rock” a few too many times, and that isn’t going to sell a record to me.) But I will say that, to the extent that I understand your question, I’ll say I prefer Queens of the Stone Age, and I certainly prefer it to the last two albums you’ve brought to Counterbalance. After the vat of high fructose corn syrup that was the Haim record, I was getting a little concerned. I’m quite pleased to hear what I can only describe as a serious album at a time when we desperately need serious albums.

Mendelsohn: What can I say? I have wide and varying tastes. Sure, that Haim record is probably as far from serious and it gets, but I think you are doing Vampire Weekend a disservice by lumping them in there simply because of some past transgression into East Coast prep pop. Modern Vampires of the City, while sometimes self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek, focuses far too often on the stark realities of mortality. And while Homme and Co., do the same, they do it with a much more serious vibe, which I imagine, can lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. But I digress, please continue.

Klinger: …Like Clockwork strikes me as a rare album these days in that it transcends its influences and actually creates something new. And those slower, quieter songs are as much a part of the equation as anything. So as much as I appreciate the slicky sweet AOR groove of “I Sat by the Ocean”, it’s the stark contrast with “The Vamprye of Time and Memory” that makes both pieces work for me. I wouldn’t call it wallowing at all — it’s more about the construction of an actual LP in a post-LP world. (Or are we in a post-LP world? Has the resurgence of vinyl among music collectors taken us out of that download era and back to the primacy of the album as an art form? If so, I say huzzah.)

Mendelsohn: I don’t think the LP ever went away. At least not when it comes to serious music, made by serious musicians and enjoyed by the serious listener — you know, the whole critical industrial complex that we’ve been discussing for the last four years. The only thing that has really changed is the music industry has gone from trying to sell singles on 45s, to singles on cassette tapes, to singles made up of 1s and 0s. And while they were doing that, most real musicians went on making LPs. I don’t think we’re living in a post-LP world, but if we are, I too am glad to have LPs from bands like Queens of the Stone Age. I’m also surprised that I’m not having to defend this record. I thought for sure you would poo-poo the droning, riff-oriented nature of this record. Imagine my surprise to hear you tsk-tsking me for moaning about a bit of Homme’s wallowing.

Klinger: I’ll admit that this sort of thing doesn’t always fall within my wheelhouse, but I’d like to think that occasionally I zag when you think I’m going to zig. Wide and varying tastes, as you say. I’m not opposed to a bit of drone or riffery if they’re in service to some larger ideal, and at first glance …Like Clockwork seems to more than fit the bill.

Mendelsohn: I will say this though, the only thing new on this record is the renewed vigor at which the Queens of the Stone Age attack the rock ‘n’ roll they shake, shimmy and cajole out of their guitars. This album, from front to back, is the complete synthesization of the entire back catalog of alternative, heavy, and garage rock, remolded to fit the desert rock that Homme has spent the last two decades perfecting. …Like Clockwork is the evolution of the band’s sound to its highest level thus far. It is as much a self-referential trip through their history as it is through the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

I know I shouldn’t discount the slower songs — as you noted, the contrast it offers helps push this collection of songs into the realm of the LP. I just can’t help but love the full-throttle songs that have been this band’s signature from days one. “I Sat by the Ocean” is indeed a slick piece of AOR, but it’s songs like the twisted, undulating “If I Had a Tail” or the alternating pretty and overpowering thrust of “Fairweather Friends” that really make this album for me.

Klinger: Well, I can certainly appreciate that, and I think it’s especially telling that you keep using words like “salacious” and “undulating” to describe Queens of the Stone Age’s music, given that the band has its roots in the 1990s, one of the absolute least sexy times in pop music history. The trend back then, as I recall, was to avoid any of the trappings of rock stardom, including the golden god tendencies that invoke prurient thoughts. I have the impression that the pendulum has swung the other way now, and it seems to be a lot more acceptable for our musicians to start acting like rock stars, both in terms of swagger and in terms of ambition. (That’s not to say that your grungers and the like weren’t ambitious or sexual, they just were expected to pretend like they found all of that highly distasteful. The drugs part was OK, of course, but the rest was downright unseemly.) …Like Clockwork sounds like a record of great ambition, from its near-constant shifting in tone to the range of lyrical style (from the plaintive “Does anyone ever get this right?” from “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” to the cocky, albeit non-syntactical “Got my own theme music / It plays wherever I are” from “Smooth Sailing”). I can’t help but tip my cap to that.

Mendelsohn: As much as the Queens of the Stone Age owe their sound to the grunge and nihilism of the 1990s, they are even more indebted to their rock fore bearers of the 1970s, and while they don’t necessarily hang from the same branch, I think that Homme and Co. are the perfect analog, in terms of sonic thrust, to the lads of Led Zeppelin. Both bands share a certain pleasure in playing rock music, especially when it comes to playing the part of the rock ‘n’ roll star. Above all though, …Like Clockwork shows off a group having fun with the music, another element their ’90s brethren completely ignored, and that goes a long way in taking this album from what could have been a tired rehash of staid rock riffs to being one of the best releases of 2013 and a return to form from a journeyman group that consistently proves their worth.