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Steely Din

The Ever-Changing Queens of the Stone Age Get Even Heavier

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 8/28/2002

The way Rolling Stone played up Dave Grohl's participation in the recording of Queens of the Stone Age's third album, Songs for the Deaf (out this week), and the band's recent tour, you'd be forgiven for thinking he had busted into the group and staged a coup d'état. Only he did no such thing. What Grohl did, aside from posing for pictures sitting or squatting between Queens Josh Homme (guitar, laconic vocals) and Nick Oliveri (bass, screeching vocals), was play drums--something that, as millions of Nirvana fans are aware, he does very, very well.

So imagine Homme and Oliveri, musical partners since the 1990 formation of their earlier band, Kyuss, opening up the April 25 issue of Rolling Stone to the "Performance" live-reviews page and encountering not only an item that barely mentions them but features a photo of Grohl and Grohl only, sticks in hand, grimacing behind the kit. How many times can you remember a magazine accompanying a live review with a shot of a nonsinging drummer?

Then again, how many times can you remember a rock band thriving not despite but thanks to its revolving lineup? It's hard not to think of Queens of the Stone Age as a heavier, metallic Steely Dan; as Homme put it in a previous album's press kit: "I feel like the more nebulous Queens of the Stone Age is--from people who play on the album, to the cover art, to the name of the album, to the name of the band--the more freedom exists for us to change, should we feel the need." So Deaf features not only Homme and Oliveri on lead vocals but guests Dean Ween, who sings "Six Shooter," "Gonna Leave You," and "The Mosquito Song"; and Mark Lanegan, who handles "Song for the Deaf," "Hangin' Tree," and "God Is in the Radio."

While boogie metal, no matter how carefully wrought, is always going to be sloppier than jazzy hermeticism, there are parallels beyond the revolving lineup. Homme and Oliveri are obviously less tight-assed than Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, not to mention less lyrically exacting--the Queens' stoned mumblings have less acidic bite than the Dan's, which is probably what you get when you're out in the California desert rather than the City of Angels. Both are genre exemplars who don't really fit into their respective categories. Where Steely Dan tweaked slick '70s studio rock till it made the Eagles sound warm, the Queens' syncopation savvy distances them from most of their sloppier "stoner rock" peers, and their robust sound itself distances them from the Ozzfest masses and neogarage revivalists.

The thing is, the more the Queens change the more their essential sound stays the same. Grohl doesn't really add all that much more whomp to what was already there on 1998's Queens of the Stone Age or 2000's R. Chances are, in fact, that unless you happen to be Grohl's drum tech, you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell who these paradiddles belong to blindfolded. The band moves in pretty much exactly the same way it did before Grohl arrived. Or, it's safe to guess, after he departs to finish work on the new Foo Fighters album (the band's show this Friday at the 9:30 Club in Washington features erstwhile Baltimorean drum monster Rob Oswald behind the skins). Though Songs for the Deaf moves a little more briskly than its predecessors, it's hardly the rhythmic rocket that Grohl-era Nirvana was.

That's partly because Oliveri plays more melodically than rhythmically, and partly due to the relative inflexibility of the songs themselves. You're damn right Homme and Oliveri's riffs rock out. The taut "No One Knows," Deaf's first single, cleanly walks the nimble/heavy divide, piston-driving a straight shuffle till it pogos halfway to China, as crisp as the Kinks circa '68 and as crunchy as Black Sabbath at its most bulbous. And the "Gimme some more" refrain of "Millionaire" echoes our plea for the band to bring that riff back again, right now, please. But just because the Queens move better than damn near any other rock band right now doesn't mean they're nearly as expansive as Cobain Inc. Grohl could throw funk accents into "Smells Like Teen Spirit" because there was so much space to fill, and because Kurt Cobain's strumming wrist was a lot looser than Homme's. For all their compositional savvy, Grohl's parts both with Nirvana and the Foo Fighters feel relatively spontaneous; here, however off-the-cuff they were, they seem written out.

If R was the Queens' prove-themselves album, leavening their mottled attack with the classic-rock roll of the Lanegan-sung "In the Fade" or the bouncy, vibes-driven "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," Deaf is their virtuoso move. The album not only feels less diverse than its predecessor, it's a little monotonous--yes, we know you guys can rock, but occasionally you might want to, you know, do something else for a minute. At times, it's as if the Queens are spending so much time trying to blast off into the stratosphere that they forget to relax and have a blast.

In that sense, the skits help: A series of mock-radio announcers (a favorite: "All death metal, all the time") link several songs. These are, surprisingly, not nearly as distracting as expected, probably because they're one-off goofs, opening your ears to the wider, poppier palette than is immediately apparent, particularly the harmonies on "First It Giveth" and the hammered piano on "Go With the Flow." (Shame about "Mosquito Song," the group's acoustic-Zeppelin moment, conveniently placed last in the sequence for easy ignoring.) If the leaner Queens isn't the ideal Queens, they still outclass nearly every other rock band of their ilk. And hey--the drummer's not bad, either.

Queens of the Stone Age play the 9:30 Club Aug. 30 with . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and the Burning Brides. For info, call (800) 955-5566 or visit www.tickets.com.

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