Saddled with the "stoner rock" label, Queens of the Stone Age and its singer/guitarist/primary songwriter Josh Homme have still managed, since the band's inception in 1998, to create original, visceral songs full of dominating guitar thump and accessible hooks. "No One Knows" and "Go With the Flow," the breakthrough singles off 2002's Songs for the Deaf, did just that: they gave your dad a beat to tap on the steering wheel to while you sat in the back, headphones on, rocking in your own private desert garage.
But Queens aren't a pop band, and "No One Knows" was just one song. There were plenty of winners on Songs for the Deaf, and more on 2000's Rated R. And Homme and Queens -- his revolving cast makes the two interchangeable -- are allowed their freedoms. It seems the question now is, After proving themselves in the past, do we grant them a free ride with their fourth album, Lullabies to Paralyze?
First the politics: Homme, in addition to getting rid of ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan, very publicly fired friend and bassist Nick Oliveri. Homme lost the services of Foo Fighters drummer Dave Grohl -- amicably, one can assume -- and went about work on Lullabies. He's not without the special guests here, most notably ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Lanegan, who, before returning to a successful solo career, stuck around long enough to join Gibbons on the haunting, howling, call-and-response stomper "Burn the Witch," certainly one of the album's standouts. "Medication," if a bit redundant, does its job of destroying and getting the hell out of the way, and "Everybody Know That You Are Insane," a rumored pot-shot at Oliveri (now with Mondo Generator), opens with a layered, Abbey Road-like guitar wash before blasting into an impossibly tight thrash. "Tangled up in Plaid" (reminiscent of Pearl Jam's "Tremor Christ"), is another gem of minor-chord urgency couched in Homme's dungeon falsetto. Most notable is that all these songs are original, different and still undoubtedly recognizable as the signature Queens sound.
The single, "Little Sister," falls squarely into Homme's domain: identifiable but interesting, powerful, punishing and dark, but also intelligent. Queens' genius is just this: they understand the elements of popular music, and have the ability to infuse their songs with enough pop sensibility to make them accessible -- a seething guitar riff, cocksure swaggering vocals, a wood-block-driven drum track courtesy of Joey Castillo. If Homme's intention is to stretch the blanket of modern rock radio, songs like "Little Sister," and "Burn the Witch" may get him there. "In My Head" is ready for consumption but full of enough brainy guitar work to keep it on its own plane.
But if musical singularity is what Queens pride themselves on -- and in the first six tracks they lay it on strong -- the second half of the album unfortunately does the work the title suggests. "In My Head" shows all the musical influence of Grohl's primary band or Pinkerton-era Weezer (see "Getchoo"), but if Homme and band have the music, what they're missing is the emotion, which here sounds flat-lined and manufactured. Never once on the later tracks do we sense any vulnerability, and rarely does Homme sing with any passion. The split between the first six tracks and the rest is disheartening. If they didn't set themselves up so well, I wouldn't be so let down by the end.
The question, it turns out, is this: Why is Homme holding out on us?
Some of Lullabies just plain drags. "Someone's In the Wolf" and "The Blood Is Love" lull about with deliberately muffled vocals and aimless, undistinguishable noodling. After "Little Sister," Homme's swagger dissipates, and we're left with studio precision -- cheers for not letting that slide -- but no attitude. It's unfair to fault them for accuracy, but what's inexcusable is the lack of energy and effort. Even the guitar, so prominent and effective earlier, falls casualty to studio time and a lack of ideas. "Skin on Skin" pokes and prods at melody but never gets close. "You've Got a Killer Scene There, Man," with Lanegan, Garbage's Shirley Manson, and the Distillers' Brody Dalle -- the latter two nearly inaudibly -- has less soul than a measure of Homme's bluesy, dancing bass line in "Burn the Witch." And Homme's endearing, eerie falsetto-noir can't save "I Never Came," which passes by like a drive to the grocery store when what you really want is a hell-ride in the Camaro you know he must own.
Lullabies is ultimately a demanding, schizophrenic, lopsided album. At its best, it's an elaboration on what Queens have become known for -- distinct, droning, melodic, heavy guitar rock. At its worst it's futile, go-nowhere studio sludge.
In the end, the lyrics speak for themselves. From "Broken Box," a highlight embedded in the album's dismal second half: "In my head you're all brand new / I guess that really you're the same." And that's essentially the problem with Lullabies: you know they can do it, but only half the time do they. The rest of it really is all the same.
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