Tag Archives: Queens of the Stone Age

Pill Hill Serenade – Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan is an unnervingly intense guy who’s made a lot of excellent heavy rock music, with his former band the Screaming Trees, with the Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions guys and with Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins. But it’s the stream of low-key, spare, acoustic solo albums he’s recorded over the years – the ones that give his voice the space to shine that it never had when it was fighting to make itself heard over the wall of guitar constructed by Gary Lee Connor and Josh Homme – that tell you the most about him as a singer. It’s on these records that you hear Lanegan’s full range as a vocalist, the rough grain of his knotted baritone, the surprising ease with which he moves up into the tenor range. He’s got the requisite technical gifts, but over the years he developed the emotional range to become a fine interpretive singer and a spellbinding singer-songwriter.

One of the chief pleasures of a Lanegan solo record for long-time alternative rock fans like me is to read the sleevenotes and see who’s guesting with him this time. Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden? Bill Reiflin from Ministry (and KMFDM, and later, surprisingly, R.E.M.)? Chris Goss from the Masters of Reality? Mike Johnson from Dinosaur Jr? Hell, even Duff McKagan, the bassist from Guns N’ Roses? All these just from 2001’s Field Songs alone, from which our chosen song today, Pill Hill Serenade, is taken.

Pill Hill Serenade has an Al Green kind of vibe to it, and there’s even a little hint of Otis Redding in there: the chord sequence, the 12/8 guitar arpeggios, the organ. It’s clearly derived from soul music, and ultimately from church music. Al could have sung this in his sweet falsetto. Otis might have built the intensity till he was stomping and roaring with preacher-man fervour. But possibly neither could have sung it with the same quiet intensity and tenderness that Lanegan does. In a career not short of fine vocal performances (Field Songs on its own offers up the sepulchral gravel of One Way Street, the wailing blues lament of Fix, and the tender Kimiko’s Dream House), Pill Hill Serenade may be his finest moment as a singer.

The song is included on his 3-disc retrospective Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 19882011, which if you’re interested in catching up on nearly 25 years of solo Lanegan, may be the place to start. Although starting at the beginning with the skeletal but riveting The Winding Sheet and working through is an equally good idea; Nirvana fans who aren’t familiar with his solo debut will be interested to hear a guest Kurt Cobain vocal on Down in the Dark and the version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night featuring Cobain on guitar and Krist Novoselic on bass*.

Lanegan
Mark Lanegan promo pic, circa Field Songs

*In 1989 Cobain and Novoselic began playing heavy blues tunes with Lanegan and Screaming Trees drummer, leadbell Mark Pickerel, mining the Leadbelly catalogue for inspiration. Where Did You Sleep Last Night was from a Jury session at Reciprocal with Jack Endino recording. It ended up on Lanegan’s solo record once the band sputtered out. Ain’t It a Shame, with Cobain singing, came out on the Nirvana box set.

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Mexicola – Queens of the Stone Age

Anyone who went to a Queens of the Stone Age show on their breakthrough UK tour in November 2000 will remember the eardrum-threatening volume. I went to one of their two shows at the London Astoria with my friend Yo and I certainly remember it. I suspect he does, too. I particularly remember the bass guitar signal forming a monstrous standing wave at the back of the hall during the last song that scattered the crowd very quickly, and did funny things to the stomachs of those who tried standing their ground. I’ve never seen My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr, but Queens were so loud I can’t really imagine anything louder.

Extreme volume is a funny thing, particularly when dealing with the zero-sum world of digital audio. Faced with an absolute ceiling of 0dB, how can a band like Queens – who made the pursuit of volume their rasion d’être – make a truly loud record? One that sounds loud compared to everyone else’s on an iPod, not just when you turn it up on a good stereo? How can you be louder than everyone else when the volume knob doesn’t work any more?

Well, one way would be to call Joe Barresi. And so they did. Barresi, at least back in the nineties, had a way of making very loud records that didn’t seem squashed lifeless, that retained the punch in the drums that is absolutely crucial to good-feeling rock records. Presumably he did this through compressing in stages all the way along, rather than by allowing them to be brickwalled during mastering. Eventually even his work came to seem static and over-compressed, but he was so skilled at the loud game that his work stood up better far longer to the age of shock-and-awe mastering jobs that was in full swing by the time the Queens made Songs for the Deaf in 2002. That record, produced by Josh Homme, Adam Kaspar and Eric Valentine (mixed by Kaspar) is a sonic atrocity, a crying shame given the quality of some of the songs on it.

Mexicola, though, is from Queens’ eponymous debut. This version of QotSA was essentially a two-man crew: Homme and drummer Alfredo Hernandez, both former members of cult stoner/desert rock band Kyuss. From the sludgy bass riff (played by Homme, under the pseudonym Carlo Von Sexron) that opens it and the tiny SM58 vocal sound, to the guitar solo mixed hard right, it’s an immediately identifiable, bone-dry sound with few precedents in mainstream rock (Kyuss producer Chris Goss’s Masters of Reality are the most obvious forebear – Goss and Homme share distinct vocal similarities – but then, MoR were not a mainstream band. Perhaps the acid-drenched psych-grunge of Screaming Trees, with whom Homme toured as a guitarist, were the closest this kind of sound got to a wider audience).

But the social and geographical context of Queens of the Stone Age (the Palm Desert scene) is not to be overlooked here. Their sound had some key components in common with other desert rock mainstays such Fu Manchu. The use of downtuned guitars, shifting the instruments’ centre of tonal gravity downwards, created sonorities that are rarely heard in mainstream rock, where standard tuning makes everything sound, well, rather standard. Heavy use of the crash and ride cymbals in place of the hi-hat, creates a ‘washing’, hazy kind of sound to the drums (often emphasised by the trick of recording the cymbals after the rest of the drums, allowing both elements to be processed separately). The use of (formerly) unfashionable amplifiers and pedals resulted in a distinctive, unscooped heavy guitar sound, that got away from the scooped guitar sounds of metal and the thin gnarly sound of some of the grunge bands. The guitarists in desert rock bands have tended to eschew the Marshalls that are the sine qua non of commercial hard rock and metal, instead using amps by H/H, Hiwatt, Orange, Matamp and the ubiquitous Sunn, plus vintage fuzz pedals. Stuff found in pawn shops. Treble is dispensable and clarity is over-rated; thumping low end and boxy mids are much more deserty. Hi-fidelity guitar sounds are avoided in favour of huge slabs of hyper-distorty gunk-o-fuzz.

So in lots of ways, early Queens were the archetypal desert rock band. But Homme found his way out of this commercial backwater pretty quickly. The basic unit of rock songwriting is the riff, which tends to describe only very simple chord changes, or no chord changes at all, and this can lead to melodic stasis. Homme worked harder than most as a tunesmith, and once Queens began attracting attention in the early noughties critics fell over themselves to claim they’d known about Yawning Man, Fu Manchu and the rest all along. A likely story. When this scene was finding its feet, all eyes were on Seattle. Those that had noticed them dismissed them as purveyors of mere retro skater-rock, as if grunge was Vorticism or something.

Queens of the Stone Age would soon abandon this sound for a poppier and more conventional take on hard rock on their second album, Rated R. But for fans of Josh Homme’s original ‘robot rock’ concept (simple riffs played over and over again; Black Sabbath covering Kraftwerk, if you will) – and for a hardcore minority, it’s the only version of Queens worth bothering with – this is the place to come.

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Josh Homme

 

No one knows – Olivier Libaux, featuring Inara George

I should hate this. Easy listening covers of hard rock songs. Hard rock covers of dance songs. Dance covers of jazz standards. Urrgh. Any sense of joy and discovery and emotional connection gets flattened by the concept, by the unspoken attitude behind the project, which is always one of three mindsets: Look how good this music would be if it adhered to our aesthetic norms (the impulse behind Travis’s Britney cover and Alien Ant Farm’s Smooth Criminal); Look how clever I am, that I can take a song in that style and play it in this style (the impulse behind this); or Look at me and my funny arrangements of pop songs (Richard Cheese and so on).

When the Queens of the Stone Age started, they derived their effect from playing repetitive riffs at punishing volume (and I do mean punishing – no other gig I’ve seen has come close to the eardrum-shattering, stomach-churning volume of QOTSA back in 2001, although I’ve never seen MBV or Dinosaur Jr), creating a sort of heavy metal version of Kraftwerk – robot rock, as Josh Homme called it.

But even by the time of second album Rated R, they were moving away from that. It became clear to Homme, I think, that the band’s real power lay in the distance between the aggression of the music and his calm, clean, disconnected-sounding vocals. Homme doesn’t shout hoarsely and passionately. He sings calmly, in rather a high-pitched voice, while the band around him batter their instruments senseless. That tension lies at the heart of all their great early songs: Regular John, Mexicola, The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret, Better Living Through Chemistry, In the Fade (although Lanegan is Homme’s proxy on that one) and No One Knows. During Nick Oliveri’s time with the band, his gonzo vocal performances were effective because of their contrast with Homme’s reigned-in style; without Homme’s blankness to play off, they’d have simply been ludicrous (and as it is they’re still pretty silly).

There’s no need to remake a QOTSA record where the music sounds as disconnected, as lifeless, as the vocal. Or, if you are going to make elevator-music backing tracks, get powerful, sweaty voices to sing the songs. Get, I don’t know, Tina Turner or someone, to stamp and bellow her way through them. Get Tom Jones to come over and roar the songs like an enraged Old Testament prophet.

And yet… I like this. I shouldn’t. On paper it shouldn’t work. I shouldn’t just dislike it; I should hate it. This sort of thing never works as real music. And yet it, on this occasion, it does. Olivier Libaux, the French songwriter behind Les Objets Bain and Nouvelle Vague (who have done the same in the past to the Talking Heads), has made a full record of this stuff, with a parade of guest singers: the Bird & the Bee singer Inara George (daughter of Lowell George from Little Feat) on No One Knows, plus Susan Dillane from Woodbine, Ambrosia Parsley from Shivaree, Skye from Morcheeba and so on. Since all the singers give similar performances, with no real outliers in tone or approach, there’s more than a whiff of markets being targeted; get a guest singer and you can sell your record to that singer’s fanbase; get 10 guest singers… There’s more than a whiff of cynicism about the whole enterprise, and still I can’t bring myself to hate the damn thing.

It’s a strange feeling to like a record that seems to have been designed specifically to annoy you. Yet here it is, and while I’m certain I couldn’t stand a whole album of it, I do like it. I’d tell you why, but I honestly can’t.

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Inara George and Josh Homme – They don’t know. I don’t know. I guess no one knows