After years of percolating in the rock world’s consciousness as Kyuss and their current incarnation, Queens of the Stone Age boiled over to become one of rock’s premier acts with their perfectly crafted 2002 masterpiece Songs for the Deaf. It is into this context of never-higher expectations that Queens released their first proper studio follow-up to Songs, Lullabies to Paralyze.
QOTSA has always placed a high value on production and not one sound wave was overlooked on this record. From dense instrumentation to engineering that brings the band right in front of you, the production efforts were immense. Best listened to after the sun has set, the mood of this album is dark and mysterious. The group maintains this mood from start to finish with the use of shadowy lyrics and, in particular, their manipulation of tone. They’ve left behind their spacious, stoner desert riffs from their Kyuss days and instead created their huge sounds using eerie, reverb-filled effects that put you in a dungeon or a scene from The Blair Witch Project. Combined with lyrics like “I know you gotta be free to kill yourself,” the goth crowd should eat this one up.
Queens has always been a revolving cast of core members, studio musicians, and touring partners, and they’ve always used that dynamic to expand their sound. On this release, for example, they bring in Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame to help out on vocals and guitar. It seems, though, that the group is becoming more and more of a project directly under the leadership of lead singer and guitarist Josh Homme. In fact, of the four people listed as band members on Songs for the Deaf, only Josh remains as a core member. The most notable departure is the loss of bassist Nick Oliveri, who was listed as co-writer of Songs. Oliveri left after a falling out with Homme to spend more time pursuing his project, Mondo Generator.
It turns out Oliveri is more than just a bald, goateed, crazy guy: his songwriting contribution is missed here as many of the songs lack a dynamism, sound similar to one another, and tend to be six-minute versions of one or maybe two riffs. It’s not that the riffs or songs are bad, but it does feel like Homme has eliminated the member of the band who best helped him keep his musical ideas concise. The best songs on Lullabies tend to be the shorter ones that leave you gasping for more.
The best stretch of songs is found right in the middle of the record. “In My Head” is a new version of a song that was on Desert Sessions Volume 10 and “Little Sister” is an excellent choice for the album’s first single. Both keep darkness at the forefront as twisted love songs. “In My Head” puts an abandoned dungeon reverb on the vocals and the infectious lyrics focus primarily on the character’s amour’s absence: “I keep on playing our favorite song/I turn it up when you’re gone/It’s all I’ve got when you’re in my head/And you’re in my head, so I need it.” QOTSA’s lyrics are always open to interpretation, but “Little Sister,” the best track on the disc, could be about a man who has fallen in love with a prostitute. The wood block, always sure to warm any john’s heart, is a nice touch.
The problems with this record are best illustrated by a couple of tracks near the end. “Someone’s In The Wolf” is over seven minutes long and with about two minutes remaining devolves into a boring, noodling guitar line. “The Long Slow Goodbye” closes out the record and would be better if it weren’t so long or slow. At the very least it would have made a nice bookend to the album (pairing nicely with the opener “This Lullaby”) if the album itself had four or five fewer songs on it.
Queens has found what they like to do-crunch out heavy riffs with some melodic, emo-style vocals on top-and leave their experiments to their side projects and Dessert Sessions albums. They continue to do that very well, and I want to like this record for its strengths. In the end, though, it seems the loss of Oliveri’s songwriting and critical assessments allowed this disc to become bloated. Like too many long players in the CD era, this one would benefit greatly from being about 70% of its current length.
If you consider, though, that we’re on the verge of moving from the CD era to a new Internet-based, song-driven model, Queens is leading the way with a collection of songs of varying quality. It’s possible that with the way QOTSA’s demographic listens to music it doesn’t matter if all the songs rock or not. With single song purchasing and iPod play lists, maybe it’s enough to let the college students fork out eight dollars for the songs they like and leave the physical media to the dinosaurs.
Rating: (3 out of 5)