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A contender for best rock album sneaks in at the end of the decade
on 10 November 2009
(4.5 stars) Them Crooked Vultures, comprised (as you already know) of JPJ, Dave Grohl and Josh Homme, have made arugably the best rock album of the decade. The music twists and turns between the direct, hard hitting songs reminiscent of Qotsa's prime and the sprawling psychedelia of some of Led Zeppelin's more overlooked songs.
The first thing that you notice is Dave Grohl's drumming, which is phenomenal as expected - he is undoubtedly at his best when behind the kit (it's easy to forget he was Nirvana's drummer) as opposed to fronting a band. Picking out highlights is very difficult. Opener 'No One Loves Me...' builds and builds until erupting into a crunching riff, one of Homme's best, and finishing at breackneck speed. Single 'New Fang' sounds unremarkable on first listen, but it (like the album as a whole) rewards numerable listens; it's jagged structure compliments Homme's motormouth vocals(sick, sick, sick springs to mind) perfectly. As a sidenote, Homme's vocals on the album are a triumph; he is able to thrillingly switch between piercing falsetto ('Scumbag Blues') and sleazy drawl ('Gunman'). Anyone who was slightly disappointed by Qotsa's last effort, Era Vulgaris, such as myself will revel in Homme's musicianship on this album as he is back to doing what he did best for Kyuss and does for Qotsa - produce riffs and hooks that alternate between the melodically heavy and the technically difficult. JPJ's bass lines are rumble along with the rhythm ('Reptiles', 'Caligulove') or pull the song along with electrifying results and he can also be found on the keys on several songs which adds a layer of interesting depth. The album itself is long by modern standards; five songs go over 5 minutes. These songs are all epic, swerving pieces of music that capture the feel of the album as a whole. For periods they hit hard before slipping into psychedelic dream-like passages. No where is this more clear than 'Warsaw...' and 'Elephants'; two standouts. Yet a testament to the group's ability is the way in which they can make the short songs just as memorable; 'Reptiles' thunders with a balance of heaviness and melody that is really how 'Run Pig Run' should have sounded and 'Mind Eraser...' skips along with squalling guitars and the added bonus of Grohl on back-up vocals. Lyrics are probably the last thing anyone will notice at first, such is the overwhelming presence of the music and vocals, but Homme comes up with some gems ('Dead End Friends'' thoughtul life as the road metaphor sits nicely against the sexual missives for which he has carved something of a reputation for Qotsa; "She said, 'I got a beautiful place to put your face' - and she was right").
Drawbacks? Admittedly there are a couple. 'Dead End Friends' doesn't quite hit you with the almighty force you would expect if you have seen the live version; the guitar sounds pared down. As for weak songs, there are none that are unlistenable but 'Interludes with Ludes' doesn't quite sit right with the propulsive rhythm of the other songs. Perhaps another of their songs that was played live, 'Highway One', would have been a better choice. And, if we're being picky, it would be nice to have a couple more short songs to break up what Homme dubbed the album's 'battleships' (songs over 5 mins).
Those niggles aside, it has to be put in context what this band has done, however. The 2000s have been starved of clear rock classics (The Strokes' 'Is this it?', Mastodon's 'Leviathan', Qotsa's own 'Rated R' and 'SFTD', White Stripes' 'White Blood Cells', TV on the Radio's '...Cookie Mountain'; any more?) when compared with the 1990s and to have this behemoth of a record appear is an unexpected bonus. While all three are great musiciains there was never a guarantee this would work (think every other 'supergroup'...), which makes this achievement even more impressive. While not an album to be compared, as some were expecting it to be, with rock's all-time greats it nonetheless packs a punch like few albums have so far in this century. It's unclear whether TCV will make another album, but if they do it will be an exciting time for a rock scene which is desperately in need of a leader. And undoubtedly, given the talent involved, there is potential for a classic album.