Friday, November 20, 2009

Them Crooked Vultures - The Grimiest, Best Rock You’ll Hear All Year

them-crooked-logo1 Them Crooked Vultures is a bona fide supergroup.  As Jordasch discussed last week, being a supergroup is a bit of a high-wire balancing act.  Do you assume that, because of your collective pedigrees, your group is automatically Super and demand the inevitable critical praise?  Or do you retreat into the comfort of simply knowing everyone in the group is Super talented and throw caution to the wind, assured that what you create will, at worst, be a musical curiosity?  Too many groups stumble toward the former, to be sure. 

Not TCV.  Part of that may be due to the modest-not-mindblowing success of its individual members.  Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme is certainly a respected member of the Rock community, but his celebrity does not threaten to dwarf his ability.  John Paul Jones, of Led Zeppelin fame, brings a certain Old School cachet to the group, which among casual listeners is mostly LZ affiliation, not his long and accomplished career as a producer and session musician..  Dave Grohl, captain of the Foo Fighters and former Nirvana timekeeper, probably has the most name recognition of the trio.  Grohl, however, oozes modesty.  When pushed to talk about himself fifteen years ago, he mocks the braggadocio of a young drummer not content with being “David Grohl of Nirvana for the rest of [his] life.” 

This is not a band preoccupied with public perception.  Grohl originally called the trio together as an experiment.  To see what would transpire in the musical space between these three men.  What a mad scientist, that Grohl.

You’d be a fool to cue up this album (titled Them Crooked Vultures) expecting Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters, or Queens of the Stone Age.  You’d be a fool to go into it expecting anything with which you might be familiar.  Them Crooked Vultures occupy a dank, scummy aural cave, a subset of rock that is wholly their own.  I fear many people familiar with Foo may wander into this space unprepared for what they might find.  These are not precisely crafted rock songs disguised as pop.  This is dirty, raw, unwholesome material.  And, on the whole, it’s wonderful.

The opening track, “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I,” brims with a laid-back confidence.  Grohl’s beat is open.  Jones’ bass rumbles in line with Homme’s guitar, which – fuzzy and reverberant – sounds like it’s coming from the apartment upstairs.  Homme’s lyrical portrait of depravity sets the tone: “ ‘I got a beautiful place to put your face’/And she was right” followed by “You can keep your soul/I don’t want a soul mate.”  Nothing about the album is savory.  The heavy throbbing of the track’s second half reinforces that point. 

But they aren’t content to just stomp a riff into the ground until you’re beset by whiplash.  The chords in “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” come swiftly.  Grohl and Homme alternate lines, expressing a desire to black out the waking world: “Give me a reason a mind’s a terrible thing to waste.”  Homme, refusing to step forward and be truly flashy, sneaks his more impressive fretwork into the brief empty bars of each phrase.  “New Fang” and “Scumbag Blues” stress Jones’ blues/funk influence.  The main riff of “New Fang” sounds like it could only have been born on Jones’ bass, and “Scumbag Blues” kicks off with Homme’s gliding his falsetto over a jam that wouldn’t sound out of place in a funk jam session.  That the song ducks down a dim passageway of a chorus is an exciting development, though not unexpected.  What does come out of left field is the keyboard/guitar jam into which it emerges.  What genre is this?

Homme’s voice – a uniquely rough, haunting tenor – often overshadows his lyrics.  I don’t feel compelled to delve into the meaning of “Bandoliers” (which features repeats of “Prepare and take aim).  But I could listen to him belt the notes all day, especially as he cuts above the bandito-inspired groove rolling beneath him.  Another example is the gritted-teeth, “Wait, what are you saying?” delivery of the verses in “Reptiles,” which contrasts nicely with the melodious choruses.  “Reptiles” is actually one of my favorites, due mostly to the way Homme’s voice erupts into a teeth-rattling growl on the second syllable of “RepTILES.”

Grohl’s in fine form throughout the album.  His ability to juggle time signatures and shifting tempos, drop fills where they’ve no business being, and simultaneously keep the trio on their toes metrically is astounding.  He’s an absolute magician on “Elephants,” in which he’s just playing Three-Card Monty with the beat.  First, we’re on the offbeat.  Oh wait, no it’s the Two.  Did I just hear it land on the One?  I have no idea, and I love it.

If you don’t have a subwoofer hooked up to your soundsystem, I suggest you listen to this album with some quality headphones.  Otherwise you’ll miss eighty percent of what Jones brings to this record.  When he’s not matching Homme lick for lick, he’s underscoring choruses with intricate basement work.  TCV might have ended up just a formless riff-fest were it not for Jones’ rock-solid foundation.  The razor-sharp riff that anchors “Gunman” would sound crass if Jones wasn’t punishing the neck of his bass like a 22-year-old with something to prove (he’s 63, by the way).  He also adds extra gravity to the punch to the gut that is the opening of “Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up,” not to mention the bass line that dances in circles beneath the chorus.

I’d be lying if I said every song grabbed equally.  I’m still warming up to “Spinning in Daffodils,” though I’ll admit it’s mostly a casualty of following “Gunman” – one of my favorites.  Jones’ keyboard work gives “Calligulove” a Doors-like flavor, and Homme’s wailing chorus is unlike anything else on the album.  But the song just hasn’t gotten its hooks into me – perhaps I’m just a big enough fan of the title’s Roman History pun.  “Interlude with Ludes” is aptly titled, being little more than a psychedelic transition between much heavier material.  I’m not sure what to make of it.  It feels like an attempt to provide a breather where one wasn’t necessary.   “Dead End Friends” trucks along, content to have made it, squeezed in between superior songs.  When heard on a full run through the album, it fits in perfectly.  But I’ve yet to select it out of order on its own.

Listen, you should hear this album.  It’s an example of what a supergroup should do.  That is, create daring music and innovate within its genre.  Not just pump out a collection of songs in the various styles of its individual members.  Them Crooked Vultures is not Josh Homme.  It’s not Dave Grohl.  It’s not John Paul freaking Jones.  It’s a gang of riff-slinging renegades, mercilessly gunning down conventions and expectations.