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Monday, March 21, 2005

Review: Queens of the Stone Age, Lullabies to Paralyze

Queens of the Stone Age Sessions@AOL

Sometimes a good album--even a particularly good album--can be a disappointment. In the case of Lullabies to Paralyze, the disappointment isn’t that the songs aren’t better or that the band isn’t as good without the volatile Nick Oliveri playing bass. The songs are solid nearly front to back and the only musical presence that is missed is that of Dave Grohl on drums. No, the disappointment is that the CD doesn’t feel like much of a move forward for a band whose first three albums all had singular, unique identities. Damned good is a step down from the greatness of Songs for the Deaf and Rated R, in particular.

It starts out well enough. The slow, precise “Lullaby” is a spare song, but when part-time vocalist Mark Lanegan starts singing, it becomes something much deeper. Lanegan’s voice has a transformative power, lulling the listener away from what could otherwise have been a tiny, cliché of a song. It also stands as the only surprise you’re likely to find on the disc.

“Medication” and “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane” both drive the disc forward with aggressive rhythms and the kind of hard rock that is hard to find from Grammy-nominated, big-selling bands these days. They both stand as good, but typical, efforts from the band; the songs are performed well, all the ingredients are there, but it’s hard to escape the sense that we’ve heard these tunes before.

A song like the slower, but wonderfully titled “Tangled Up in Plaid,” is the reason that it would be a crime to neglect to buy the album. A song like “Burn the Witch” is the reason that Lullabies still comes close to being a classic.

With Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top adding a touch of Texas blues and Lanegan providing a dry-throat scrape to back up Josh Homme’s high and clear falsetto, is the best song on the album. It exists in a place not far from Led Zeppelin, but belonging entirely to the Queens of the Stone Age. Anyone with a love for rock and roll will be singing along at the end—"Burn the witch, burn to ash and bone.” Demented, sure, but catchy as hell.

Another obvious highlight is the first single, “Little Sister,” which is almost as radio friendly as Songs for the Deaf’s perfect “No One Knows.” It would be safe to predict movie placement and radio overkill for the fun little rocker with the sing-along chorus. Soon after “Little Sister” closes out the first half of the disk, though, the going gets bland. “I Never Came” stands as the kind of near-pop song that makes Queens a still-cool band balanced right on the edge of the mainstream acceptance, “Skin on Skin” just makes for unpleasant, tedious listening.

Intriguingly distorted vocals don’t manage to save “Someone’s in the Wolf” from its arty pretensions. At over seven minutes long, the song devolves into Halloween sound effects and musical noodling that ultimately prove tiresome. From there, most of the remainder of the disc is skip-it filler. The only exceptions are the groovy “You Got a Killer Scene There, Man,” with it’s almost impossible to hear guest vocals, and the mellow “Long, Slow Goodbye.”

The UK version of the album (NME.com is streaming the entire UK release on their site) has a couple songs that we won’t be seeing on the US release, and that’s an absolute shame. The first song, “Like a Drug,” is elevated from one of the Desert Sessions discs and sounds like a song recorded in the late 50’s or early 60’s; the cover of ZZ Top’s “Precious and Grace” is an intense, earthquake of a song. With Billy Gibbons and Mark Lanegan exchanging vocals, this one would have been the perfect bookend to the opener. The US release is poorer for the absence.

Lullabies could have been great, but its second half is too self-indulgent and the overall disc doesn’t present the same kind of step forward that came when the band went from the self-titled album to Rated R to Songs for the Deaf. Lullabies is an album with some great moments that doesn’t quite live up to the expectations.

But those moments of greatness still act as a compelling reason to buy the thing.

Check out the live performances in the Sessions@AOL archive.

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