Music Reviews

Queens of the Stone Age Villains

(Matador) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

For many a rock purist, Queens of the Stone Age are looked upon as saviors within the fossilized programming of commercial rock radio. Led by Josh Homme’s precariously cool demeanor, the band’s desert-tinged riffs and well-crafted sleaze induce memories of a time when rock meant to sound dangerous. Which is why you’ll occasionally hear No One Knows snug in between chart-toppers like Lights Out and Thunder, an upfront reminder of how the format has shifted to empty posturing without the attitude. Homme could be considered an elder statesman at this point, a wise mentor with a high reputation, but he’s still playing the young man’s game of relevance.

Homme has been looking for ways to give Queens of the Stone Age a new makeover. He’s well aware that they’ve built a sound they can consider theirs, but he’s also fretful they’ve reached a point where they can sound like a parody of themselves. Which brings Mark Ronson to the equation: the mega-producer sounds like an unlikely choice, the kryptonite that could destroy Homme’s mythical brawn. But he’s also a meticulous gear head with an insatiable appetite for remodeling music’s past, and his proven track record making spotless pop records for artists who seek to reinvent themselves still makes him a highly sought-after asset.

Homme’s main approach with Villains, their seventh LP, was to emphasize rhythm and groove above all else. Even if Ronson had yet to explore a bona fide rock sound, he’s not as unlikely a candidate as one can imagine. A feeling of trepidation increases upon hearing The Way You Used to Do for the first time, a swinging take on vintage boogie where Homme fully realizes his undying flirtation with classic crooners. But the guitar is still the main driver on Used to Do, and Homme spins it wildly as if he were doing the Balboa with a knife pleat skirt-wearing dame. It doesn’t quite redeem Queen of the Stone Age’s undeniable cool, but it also doesn’t betray their long track record with subverting the conventions of rockabilly.

Any worries should be cast aside. Aside from the slight misstep, the rest of Villains sounds like a typical Queens record, albeit, with a more lighthearted tone. Continuing a flawless record of superb album openers, Feet Don’t Fail Me stirs up a heavy riff that quietly boils atop a synth lead before a clear-eyed drum beat softens their scalding delivery. “I commence to moving / I was chasing what’s calling me,” he croons, as if it wasn’t obvious enough he wants to shake the pain away. That also applies to the strip-friendly saunter of Un-Reborn Again, where Homme fully yields to his Bowie worship by utilizing the same frisky rhyming schemes that gave his glam phase a playful flamboyance.

What’s most surprising is how Villains recalls the more jolting moments found on Songs For the Deaf and Lullabies to Paralyze. There’s a perkiness to Domesticated Animals that’s reminiscent of the heavy pop hooks on In My Head, except that it’s been repurposed with a spatial beat pattern. The eerie spookiness of Fortress is characteristically sordid, but it’s also held together by a stronger emotional core, where he offers support and heartfelt advice to his children (“If ever your fortress caves / You’re always in mine.”) Even if Homme is always intent on having outgrown the band’s more lumbering days, a sobering reality check that functioned as a necessary evil on 2013’s practically humorless …Like Clockwork, Homme has cunningly regained his footing.

On Villains, Homme accomplishes his desire to write a more groove-oriented record, but that’s also a fallacy worth examining, as he simply redirects his foolproof rhythmic sharpness with a thinner veneer. The Queens of the Stone Age brand is still ballast-proof, as they always aspire to find some stability within the turmoil that always seems to follow them through each album cycle. Ronson’s efforts can sometimes come across as superfluous since Villains does tend to drag during its last stretch without finding a way to refresh some of its tired, fuzzed-out riffs (sans for Villains of Circumstance, a multi-part epic that ends the album with show-stopping confidence). But make no mistake, this is a Queens record that has no pretenses, no false identity. And it provides just the right remedy to refuel rock radio’s loss of identity.