Queens Of The Stone Age – [Album]

Friday, 30 July 2010

The thing about Queens Of The Stone Age's music which has always managed to capture and hold listeners' attention  is that it is nearly impossible to qualify. Of course, there's no arguing that the band's music falls squarely into the 'rock' idiom but, after Nirvana broke and the Alternative bands from the Seattle and Chicago scenes landed on the pop map, a hard line got drawn between the underground (or “indie”) stream and the mainstream that has proven to be perilous to cross; going one way means you've sold out and going the other implies that you're losing professional steam as well as some of your holdings in the 'popular' marketplace. Over the last fifteen years, such a simple differentiation as that has been known to mean the difference between career collapse and career creation or conservancy. Bands have lived and died by that line but, since first appearing on the pop radar in 2000, Queens Of The Stone Age has managed to play to both sides at the same time without losing face with either. How do they do it? By playing four-on-the-floor rock n' roll with enough ironic and/or subcultural flavor to appeal to the underground but also cutting the mix with enough classic rock bombast, swagger and (slightly modified) cliche to hook mainstream neophytes too; and when the band leans too far one way, they always make sure to compensate and resolve that moment by leaning a bit harder on the other side as quickly as possible. That constant balancing act has guaranteed interest and close observation by both camps and likely always will – at least until there is a hard enough qualifier either way that would make everyone either love the band unquestionably or hate it bitterly.

So is it really something so simple as an artistic game of cat-and-mouse? Not really, the balancing act that Queens Of The Stone Age has undertaken can only be regarded as a genuine and natural function – because the band already had it locked in and solid when Rated R came out on June 6, 2000 and introduced the world at large to the band. By then, the band had already been honing its' sound and style for three years and already inserted themselves into the market with its' small-release, self-titled debut which came out a year after forming so the groundwork was there but, even so, no one saw Rated R coming – and did it ever make a splash.

Even now, ten years later, listeners will get an instant adrenaline rush as “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” kicks over with its' vintage, marshal, Stooges-by-way-of-Motorhead drumming, mindless lyrical chant (“Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, Marijuana, Ecstasy and Alcohol”) and obviously stoned guitar figure but taking a closer look reveals that there's a little more to it than just teenage kicks; calling a pharmaceutical checklist like that “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” could be viewed as ironic and biting commentary on youth culture and is subversive in the same way NoFX' “Please Play This Song On The Radio” was, but it's also solid and infectious enough to get the leather-clad skinhead moron at a show excited enough to start throwing his fist in the air and treating it like a battle cry. It's such a simple song, but it plays well to everyone and gets everyone moving – that each group of fans is moving for a different reason is irrelevant.

Immediately following that first call to arms (such as it is), Queens Of The Stone Age lays up to tantalize listeners with the tight-but-not-at-all-aggressive hit “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” which proves that there is some serious generic and formal crossbreeding at work on Rated R. While the song never exactly looks for true rock bombast per se, it strikes an anthemic chord by simmering and remaining rhythm-centered. Bassist Nick Oliveri uses his trademark stout and staccato low end to pin the song up for listeners to see and battles most of the other rock instruments out of the verses, thereby leaving most of the field wide open for Josh Homme to tease listeners into submission. It's kind of amazing how it works out; Homme never utters a seriously bombastic word but hooks listeners hard by making them work for it. Here, in largely open space with little more than Dave Catching's whole note electric piano line floating through the mix, Homme could do any damned thing he wants but chooses instead to whimper along a bit before copping out with the line, “Cut you in, I just cut you out” and letting his guitar take over for the coy chorus. Truth be told, “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” is the phenomenal grunge/alt-rock hit that every band on that scene hoped it could write but the genius of Homme's delivery is that his melody sounds tossed off and he seems to genuinely not care about it as he just rifles through the lines nonchalantly. “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” is the ultimate anti-hit; so of course it became huge and the first calling-card song for the band.

Calling card or not, “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” isn't the only great song on Rated R. Queens Of The Stone Age strikes stoner-indie rock gold with “Auto Pilot,” “Better Living Through Chemistry,” “Quick And To The Pointless,” “In The Fade” and “Tension Head” by taking big, arena-sized ideas along with some potent post-hardcore riffs and bringing them all back to indie rock's great indoors; compartmentalizing them and tightening the screws on them, much to the thrill of listeners. It's fascinating to hear those beasts be tamed like they are here; what QOTSA has done in each of those aforementioned cases is take the big ideas that Detroit bands of the Seventies (The Stooges, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper and Grand Funk) thrilled arena-sized audiences with, housebroken them and made them playable in living room-sized spaces. Each crosses the boundaries of 'big' (like the tubular bells-sounding electric piano in “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret,” for example) and 'small' (the bedroom tape-sounding rhythm guitar part which dominates “Auto Pilot”) and does it with staggering ease. At the same time, the ease with which the band presents these songs puts the musical guests that appear on the record including Rob Halford (who appears as part of the gang chorus in “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer”), Mark Lanegan and Barrett Martin (both from Screaming Trees), Wendy Rae Fowler (from We Fell To Earth, and Lanegan's ex-wife) and Dave Catching (who would later be the guitarist in the peer group Eagles Of Death Metal) and the fact that they attempt to grab exactly no spotlight from the proceedings into relief. The amount of talent and the design of Rated R has obviously made for strange bedfellows, but the results are an incredible, totally pretense-free and homegrown-sounding affair that doesn't fly high and doesn't run fast, but gives listeners the impression that while the band could do either of those things, it's more fun and more interesting to take those possibilities and turn them each on their head and have listeners on the edge of their seats to see what they do next. That plan worked too as Rated R was certified gold in the UK, established the group as one of significant enthusiasm and piqued enough enduring interest that it helped to ensure Gold and Platinum-coated sales for the follow-up, Songs For The Deaf. In effect, Rated R represents the ramp-up that would get Queens Of The Stone Age their first foothold in the mainstream, while still playing music that didn't exactly abide by the mainstream's rules.

Ten years later, and Rated R is regarded as the first great album by Queens Of The Stone Age – even if Songs For The Deaf gets more attention – and with the band announcing plans to reissue their self-titled first album [Josh Homme made this announcement earlier this year, but no hard plans have been made public yet –ed], Universal Music Enterprises has followed suit and delivered a deluxe, two-disc edition reissue of Rated R first which is really cool in its own right. Of course, the label has remixed and remastered Rated R and the songs sound as good (or, particularly in the case of “In The Fade,” better) as ever, but the second disc goes the extra mile by collecting the bonus tracks from the Rated U special edition UK-only release, “Ode To Clarissa” – the extra track from the Japanese release of Rated R – as well as a couple of other rarities done around the same period. Those extra tracks are sort of interesting and would be of interest to fans in their own right, but the real honey pot here is the inclusion of the band's performance at the Reading Festival in 2000; where the band takes those big ideas that it compressed for Rated R and lets them out of their respective boxes for air.

Looked at in a live context as it is here, “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” becomes the bombastic and imposing beast that listeners thought it would be as they blasted it out of their car stereos back when, and the band plays with dramatic delivery (Oliveri's scare-ifying stage whisper to punctuate the pharmaceutical list is fantastic) to push themselves over the top. With that tone set, the band keeps the energy up through ear-bleeding and acid-twisted performances of “Regular John,” “You Can't Quit Me Baby,” “Avon” “Quick And The Pointless” and “You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire” both dust off some older songs and show how well they can fit in with the Rated R material. Interesting too is the live treatment of “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret,” which fares surprisingly well even without the benefit of its' electric piano assistance; with a droning guitar in its' place to make up the difference, the song takes on a very, very sinister tone that fans wouldn't have considered before, but it is most definitely fantastic food for thought here.

After ten years in print and plenty of time to infiltrate into the pop culture canon, it wouldn't be unreasonable for a fan to assume that Rated R had already run as far as it was going to but, here on this re-release, that has proven to not be the case at all. With Rated R's reissue, everyone – the band, their label, longtime fans and new ones – have the opportunity to re-absorb these songs in a few different ways and, not only that, get a little more insight into the ideas and both how they started in the first place as well as how they were carried out. This two-disc set is the best way to get into these songs because, here, listeners get them from every possible angle.



Rated R X – Tenth Anniversary Deluxe Edition 2CD comes out August 3, 2010 through Interscope/UMe. Pre=Order it here on Amazon .

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