March 31, 2005

Queens of the Stone Age: Lullabies to Paralyze

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Never trust a band that is in the process of dissolving. When Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme fired innovative bassist Nick Oliveri, fans and loving critics of the band everywhere braced themselves for the implosion, expecting only the worst from the separation. As Homme said of Oliveri in a recent interview for NME, “He’s a tornado, and a tornado just destroys … I’m in the tornado cleanup crew, and all I ever see is his detritus, and I’m sick of it.”

Now, I could understand if the Backstreet Boys dropped the greasy but exotically arousing Hispanic one for being an alcoholic; it just doesn’t fit with the wholesome standard set by the likes of Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch. I thought, however, that maniacal and even suicidal behavior was encouraged in a rock group. Why would a band that prides itself on creating some of the most ground-breaking, manic rock of the last decade remove its most reckless member for the sake of clarity?

Sadly, their latest album Lullabies to Paralyze reflects a stunning loss of energy. And I don’t mean they tweaked their style, tightened their play or made their songs more concise. Any of those options would have been fine, even welcomed. Nothing is more exciting than a band defining itself amidst the muck of corporate music. But in this case, I’m talking about a Bonds-esque loss of energy (Come on now. It’s the media, not withdrawal from some foreign substance that has made me so tired AND made my knee fall apart. I swear. Seriously.)

There are a few very solid tracks on the record, but some unfortunate cameos as well. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame is misused on “Burn the Witch,” a song that provides him no space to flex his legendary ability. The Shirley Manson (of Garbage) appearance is just bizarre; she sings for about nine seconds on a crummy song “You Got a Killer Scene There, Man…” If you were going to buy the album to hear her, shame on you anyway. The best song is probably “I Never Came,” which certainly evokes their previous work both lyrically and musically, but the track would have been merely filler on any of their past albums.

The most notable difference is, surprise, the lack of funk-inducing bass. Previous Queens albums featured spinning, dancing bass lines that could propel the band into a frenzy or an extended jam. On this album, the band uses several different bassists. Additionally, Homme takes it upon himself on a number of the songs to give the music some backbone, but most of the songs are void of the action that used to swirl around his cluttered lyrics and guitar.

Homme’s takeover reflects a disturbing trend frequently apparent in the rock frontman: he is, in fact, egotistically delusional. Billy Corgan, too. And before them there was Eric Clapton and even Paul McCartney. Yes, it was Paul who began to believe his own press and decided that Wings (Wings?) would take him higher than the Beatles ever could! And as if that weren’t enough to commit him, he married a one-legged woman 25 years his junior. I have wandered way off the beaten path here; let me bring it on home.

Josh Homme and company deserved every bit of praise that critics lavished upon them for their first three albums. The albums were progressive, varied and in many parts, stunningly beautiful. As the principal songwriter for the critical darlings, it’s probable that Homme began to consider the rest of the band dispensable and that he did not need any contrasting perspective when writing. Oliveri, however, was the complement to Homme and it is apparent now that the band drew most of its multi-faceted intensity from its bald, bearded and belligerent bassist.

It is the excessive coherence of the album that is going to frustrate most Queens fans. The album is just too direct, especially musically. Their earlier albums were marked by lustful drug references and searching questions that appeared even more pressing given the frantic compositions of the band. Lullabies to Paralyze does not have the sense of urgency that shrouded the earlier albums. Perhaps the band won its struggle with the devil when it fired Oliveri. But a rock band without conflict can only flounder (you’re next Coldplay) and will slowly sink under the weight of mediocre, uninspired albums.

Archived article by Stan Feldman
Sun Staff Writer