Queens Of The Stone Age
Spiced throughout with satirical DJ chatter and radio announcements à la The Who Sell Out, Queens Of The Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf is an attack on rigid radio formats that also serves as a quasi-ironic survey course on all permutations of hard, fast, and heavy music. It includes high-octane punk-pop, Zeppelinesque tales of ancient woe, psychotic mid-'60s garage romps, sing-along stadium chants, at least two epochal power ballads, at least one jokey goof-nut ballad, and a few indescribable fusions of "metal heavy, soft at the core" (like the mechanical two-step single "No One Knows") that take hard rock closer to and farther away from its sources than anyone thought possible.
Sadly, it is also an album with reach and grasp that might never be approached again, for Queens Of The Stone Age is a kind of rotating hard-rock supergroup: Founders Josh Homme and Nick Olivieri are the only permanent members, and they form new editions of the band with anyone who has the talent and interest to play along for an album and tour. The first new member on Songs for the Deaf is guest vocalist and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, who is one of the only grunge singers who never fell prey to the vocal hysterics of Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell. But the biggest difference between this edition of the band and previous incarnations is the presence of second new (and since departed) member Dave Grohl, who took much-needed time off from fighting foo to play some drums.
It's no exaggeration to say that the album hinges on his performance, and, gamer that he is, Grohl does not disappoint. I've been waiting for Grohl to play drums for eight or nine years now, and he gives the QOTSA rhythm section more flexibility, muscle, and unpredictability than ever before. On "Song for the Dead," Grohl rolls and rumbles his way into the best solo I've heard in years, nearly reversing the rock hierarchy by turning the song into a drum showcase that also includes the obligatory guitar riff.
My only qualm is the way the record sounds. I want this snarling, circular music to appropriate the high gloss and polish of a Nevermind or even an Ænima, and when it doesn't, I keep reaching for the volume knob to add more definition to the guitars and, especially, the bass lines, which are catchy in a Paul McCartney-in-a-lake-of-fire sort of way whenever they can be heard. As a result, this is an album that simply cannot be played loud enough -- if you can call that a criticism.
-- Addison Engelking
Death certainly becomes Neko Case; the Grim One lurks menacingly on her third album, the forceful Blacklisted (the first without backing band Her Boyfriends). Crows flock around her, Hitchcock-style, on the leadoff track, "Things That Scare Me," portending some future tragedy, while on "Tightly," she seemingly pleads for mercy, singing, "I cling tightly to this life."
Death-wise, the penultimate track is "Deep Red Bells." A "handprint on the driver's side" marks the car of a lover (presumably) who was "murdered on the interstate." Death's calling card "looks a lot like engine oil and tastes like being poor and small and popsicles in summer." Case isn't just summoning death, she's creating her own mythology of it, fashioning it from the same Northwestern soil that David Lynch used to form the White and Black Lodges.
The songs on Blacklisted, which can be awkward in their wording, are full of fleeting imagery and fragmented narratives. They whisper their meanings rather than reveal them outright, as if Case wants to protect herself and her emotions.
She offsets such spooked desolation with her expansive, expressive voice, which can convey immensely complex fears and emotions. While her cover of Aretha Franklin's "Runnin' Out of Fools" is a showcase for her powerhouse vocals, she is at her best when she holds back: Her subdued version of Sarah Vaughn's "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)" captures the sad resignation of the lyrics, and "I Wish I Were the Moon" glides along on a fragile melody that would shatter under too much singing.
Case's mortal dread -- a distillation of the paranoia that has haunted country music for almost a century -- threatens to overwhelm much of Blacklisted, but she balances the strange restraint of her songwriting with the authority in her voice. Adding light and air to what could have been a dark and claustrophobic record, she ultimately sounds triumphant, if not over death, then at least over her own fears. -- Stephen Deusner
The Songs of Lee Hazelwood
Not all tribute albums are nightmarish messes. The second volume of the Rolling Stones tribute series, Uncut, had some good stuff by Lambchop and the MC5. And there was that version of Springsteen's Nebraska a couple of years ago on Sub Pop that featured great covers of "Highway Patrolman" and "Downbound Train" by Dar Williams and Raul Malo of the Mavericks, respectively. That record also featured some embarrassing denture whistle from Johnny Cash on "I'm on Fire." (Yes, he's an icon and very ill, but a little Poli-Grip would affix that upper plate securely.)
Lee Hazelwood has always been a storyteller in his songs, kind of like a non-redneck Tom T. Hall with a functioning neocortex. (Hazelwood has lived rough, but he's never been as scary-looking as Hall, who resembles a golem at times.) And in recent years, he has experienced a resurgence in popularity. The stuff he recorded with Nancy Sinatra and on his own 30-plus years ago now sounds cool and ironic instead of corny and overblown (as his material did to this reviewer at the time).
So it was inevitable that a Lee Hazelwood tribute record would eventually appear. Several of these remakes best the Hazelwood originals, which is not that difficult a task, considering how tame and dated much of Hazelwood's recorded work sounds today. Tribute compiler Wyndham Wallace deserves credit for picking mainly moody and somewhat obscure Hazelwood tunes to redo here. The matching of contributors with songs is mostly genius, particularly professional Southern geek Johnny Dowd's take on Hazelwood's California hippie-lifestyle anthem "Sleep in the Grass." Dowd's "I'm gonna cut you" shtick finds its proper application on this grotesque remake.
However, K Records majordomo/head doofus Calvin Johnson stinks up the joint with a truly horrific reading of "Sand," on which he adopts an affected baritone croak (as bad as Cash's denture whistle). Not too many big names here (unless you count Evan Dando and Jarvis Crocker as biz heavyweights), but the use of less well known artists emphasizes the songs over big-name singers. Total Lee is that rarest of creatures, a tribute record that improves on the originals. -- Ross Johnson
Because they draw from pretty obvious sources in pretty obvious ways, a band like Interpol is waiting to be dissed by a dude like me. They sound like the Strokes played at half-speed and mixed with some of the contrapuntal skyscraper guitars of Television and grounded by the occasional near-perfect off-tink of a Feelies percussionist. The vocalist sounds like a more ethereal, less suicidal, and half-poetic Ian Curtis singing through that famous distorted Strokes-aphone. The band is from New York, a place I love but one that seems really into the cannibalization of its musical past right now. And still they do not move me.
The problem for any music fan is that while listening to Interpol's record, the pedigree of the music and the rampant copycatting force a never-ending game of spot-the-influence every time you listen to it: It's like being forced to read Lolita only for the number of times Nabokov mentions "Annabel Lee" or watching Goodfellas just to spot the allusions to B-Westerns and Abraham Polonsky movies. Leave that shit to devotees with more time and money. Interpol does not repay such efforts.
If you're not a serious music fan or an idiot or buying your first Matador record, you might love these guys without question. If you're human, you will be amused and mildly entertained by three or four tracks because they steal from the best. If you're me, you'll keep wondering why Turn on the Bright Lights sounds like one of the longest 49-minute albums in history. --AE
The Bigger Lovers
The Bigger Lovers' second album, Honey in the Hive, may not be the best album of the year, but it is perhaps the most surprisingly consistent. Listening to these 11 songs, you continually expect the band to falter; at least one song will surely fail to live up to the others or will lack a smart melodic hook or a catchy lyric. But, track for track, Honey in the Hive is an unexpectedly solid album, an out-of-nowhere charmer that will hopefully gain this Philadelphia quartet a respectable audience.
The Lovers uphold the fine tradition of post-REM college pop -- jangly guitars, wry and occasionally obscure lyrics, highly hummable melodies -- that put them in rank with the dBs, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Caulfields, and the Connells. Power chords and drumrolls propel the opener, "Half Richard's," while "Make Your Day" gets high on Skylarking-era XTC.
But the album's high point is "A Simple 'How Are You?'" -- one of the best, most addictive pop songs I've heard all year. As Scott Jefferson croons an unassumingly catchy chorus ("A simple 'How are you?'/Makes me want you in so many ways"), Ed Hogarty earns an MVP award for the keyboard riffs that gleefully bounce through the song.
The Lovers are aware of and not entirely comfortable with their college origins: "Haunts Me Still" recalls the nights "hanging out with Meg and Billy" in the dorm room with shaky regret: "Sometimes, the bile makes it easier to live." It's this uneasiness that motivates the Lovers to sharpen the hooks in these songs, and it raises them above many of their post-college pop forebears. -- SD