Queens of the Stone Age – “Villains”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Head Like A Haunted House,” “The Evil Has Landed”

Whenever Josh Homme is involved with a new project, it’s always telling to look at who he has chosen to surround himself with. Although the band’s current line-up has stayed mostly intact since the “Era Vulgaris” days of a decade ago, Homme’s albums have always reflected those around him. He’s worked with everyone from Dave Grohl to Iggy Pop to John Paul Jones to Lady Gaga to Elton John, and often reflects back on them. This album, though, has no features – not even Mark Lanegan. It only takes one person out for a spin, but that person is Mark Ronson. Ronson met Homme while producing Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” which Homme guests on. Ronson is known for his diverse collaborations, often wringing the best possible work out of acts like Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Amy Winehouse – but a hard rock band like Queens of the Stone Age was still a bold choice to produce.

QOTSA really thrust themselves in a new direction on “Villains,” their seventh album. Their first six albums, though all different, set a template for the band that gets largely demolished here. Gone are the hard-rock crunches of “Sick Sick Sick” and the blunting tempo changes of “Song for the Dead.” Instead, we get (mostly) some danceable rock. Quite frankly, “Villains” sounds like the meeting point between Ronson and QOTSA that we were expecting. Opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” really sets the tone, with an almost silent intro that leads to a midtempo, synth heavy beat that’s a far distance from “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” The party hits its peak halfway through the album, on “Head Like a Haunted House,” a disco-y track with an almost circus bassline that gets so party that it becomes a little draining.

Regular ol’ grinding QOTSA still works their way into the album, too. “Domesticated Animals” is an exploration into what it’s like to play the same three chords on repeat for over five minutes and, as far as QOTSA album tracks are considered, it’s as successful as you might expect. The album’s best track (and second single) “The Evil Has Landed,” is the only song that actually features the all-out one-chord guitar attack we love from QOTSA. And, as the album’s penultimate track, it comes as a prodigal return. Closer “Villains of Circumstance,” a song that’s existed in the QOTSA canon for at least a few years now, lets some of Homme’s deeply underrated vocals shine (although the song does die out on a disappointing finale).

Unfortunately, there is some dead weight. QOTSA have never really been a band to attempt slow songs, and on “Villains” we find out why. “Fortress” starts with promise but hits a real sour tone when the pace never picks up. Also, “Un-Reborn Again” is a track that starts out as a ton of fun, but well overstays its welcome. 6:41 isn’t exactly a foreign length for a QOTSA song, but at the four-minute mark I was already finding myself waiting for the end. Even if the new, upbeat turn is refreshing, there is a lack of the guitar bashing we expect. “Villains” feels like a balanced effort that doesn’t quite make the correct scale at times.

All of that said and done, Mark Ronson producing a Queens of the Stone Age release is an equally wild and understandable effort, and it’s pretty full of jams. This album might not have any of the best QOTSA songs – and they exist on every album – but it is mostly consistent throughout and certainly stands out as their most unique effort so far. The band might not ever put out another “Songs For the Deaf,” but this content is more than acceptable. Just don’t take so long next time.

-By Andrew McNally

Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

Fucked Up – “Glass Boys”


Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Echo Boomer” “DET”

The most immediately jarring thing about Fucked Up’s fourth proper full-length is it’s running time. At 44 minutes, it’s barely half the length of their previous album, “David Comes to Life.” It’s only ten songs, and only three are over five minutes. This isn’t to say Fucked Up are taking a backseat after the success of their last album – instead they’re taking a whole new approach. “David Comes to Life” was an unequivocally ambitious rock opera with many characters and four parts. And it was so good that they forced publications like The Chicago Tribune into not only putting a hardcore album in their 2011 “Best Of” lists, but finding ways to blur the name. It did leave the band in an accidental awkward position though – as one of the most unique and unconventional bands in music, they were suddenly mentioned in the same breath as bands like Foo Fighters, who they’d previously spoken out against. So to continue fighting from the inside, they released “Glass Boys” – their attempt at a skewering, conventional rock record.

First off, it doesn’t really work. Asking Fucked Up to release a typical rock record is like asking Charlie Kaufman to direct the next “Transformers” movie – it just isn’t going to be as dumb as it should be. “Glass Boys” is still littered with narratives, references to mythology and dark, convoluted poetry. And furthermore, Fucked Up is a hardcore band at heart. Even if the band has never been as raging as most hardcore bands, Pink Eyes’ vocals are still as throaty and guttural as before. They’re just too ambitious to try to pull off a normal rock record – even if it’s not done seriously. This is the band that’s doing “Year of the…” EP’s in between albums, with 10+ and 20+ minute songs. Fucked Up are too imaginative, and exist in too many genres, to really pull this off.

So what results is a batch of moderately regular songs. On one hand, it’s interesting to hear Fucked Up go back to some traditional hardcore roots, with songs that are easier to wrap your head around. It’s all high energy, still. On the other hand, it does sound like a bit of a failed experiment. The biggest case is on “Warm Change,” where they mimic classic rock by ending with a pointless, meandering guitar solo and a keyboard fade-out. It’s a bit of a parody, sure, but one that doesn’t fit alongside any other song on the album.

But still, if you take the album at a base level and don’t look at it like a certain concept, it’s still a strong hardcore album. “Echo Boomer” is a raging intro to the album, and songs like “Touch Stone,” “Sun Glass” and “DET” are just as loud and abrasive as you’d expect from Fucked Up. And in some ways, their ambition works – the drums and guitars were recorded differently. Jonah Falco recorded four different drum tracks throughout the album, and the guitars are layered and smoothed out to make more of a drone noise than a lead melody. They’ve released a whole alternate version of the album, with half-time drums. Even at their least ambitious, Fucked Up is still incredibly ambitious. So even if this is a grand idea that provides little fruitful, it’s still a solid record from the most inventive band in music. The fact that Fucked Up even thought to make the exact opposite of their previous album shows they’re still at the top of their game.

If you like this, try: Tonally, Fucked Up has always been a tough band to place. Hardcore-inspired rock, built for the indie crowd – there’s no specific audience. So thematically, I recommend two of my favorite albums: Titus Andronicus’ “Local Business,” where the band was similarly finding a way to make a post-magnum opus album, and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Songs For the Deaf,” an earlier attempt at an overly-regular rock album.

-By Andrew McNally

Arctic Monkeys – “AM”

(Photo Credit: Spin)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Do I Wanna Know?” “R U Mine?”

Bands by no means have to retain any sort of their original sound. Five albums and seven years later, the Arctic Monkeys do not need to sound like the bratty teenagers they were on their debut. But this album feels like such an antithesis to their debut that it ends up being frustratingly disappointing. When they shot out of nowhere in 2006, they were four teens playing wild, sloppy songs about underage drinking and one-night stands. Now, they’re well-dressed and playing metrical and over-produced odes to maturity and bachelor life. In some ways, a band maturing is nice, and this is the first Arctic Monkeys album where the members seem to fully realize who they are and what they’ll become. But this Arctic Monkeys seems like it would scoff at the 2006 Arctic Monkeys, and the 2006 Arctic Monkeys seems like it would despise what it’ll eventually become.

The band took a different approach to this album. Their recent, public relationship with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age (and a tour with the Black Keys) has largely benefited them. Homme appears on this album; Alex Turner appears on QOTSA’s “…Like Clockwork.” The band has, for whatever reason, decided to ‘Americanize’ their music by recording in the desert with Homme and basing beats off of Dr. Dre. It’s an interesting idea, and one that fits wonderfully within the band’s running thing of each album representing some aspect of life. But the new songs are so beat-based that they feel like a how-to guide for people just starting to learn music. The drum machine and artificial clapping are basic and pointless. And the album is so slickly produced that it makes old songs like “A Certain Romance” feel like underground recordings from the ’70’s. The band and the production are both so slick and so smooth, that it doesn’t feel real. And that’s the last thing I ever expected from them.

Had this album been released by a different band, it would probably be a good recording. There’s diversity amongst the tracks, and a common theme of being a bachelor. The songs ask questions, the lyrics are provocative, and the music is catchy without being overblown. Taking it out of the history of the band, it’s a pretty decent recording. I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to the band (that might go to 2011’s “Suck It And See”), but if someone were to listen to this album with no prior knowledge of the group, they might enjoy it.

That being said, the band gave me something that they’ve never given me before, and that’s a large chunk of an album that’s truly boring. There’s a section of three or four songs in the album’s midpoint that should not be as dull as they are. And a song called “No. 1 Party Anthem” should not be one the album’s slowest songs. Unless, of course, this is a grown-up party with adults discussing current events. And this may be the Arctic Monkeys that we have come to.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Arctic Monkeys. I keep their debut, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not,” as one of my go-to albums in my car. I loved “Favourite Worst Nightmare,” I enjoyed “Humbug,” and I adored “Suck It And See.” So to see the band go so slick and smooth felt, to me, like a total loss of principle. They may have been heading in that direction, but I didn’t think they would hit this point so quickly. This album is the direct opposite of their debut, and I find it hard to believe that these guys could truly mature this much in so few years. I will stick by this band, I’ll still see them if they come around this way, but I can’t see myself listening to “AM” again anytime soon.

If you like this, try: The new Queens of the Stone Age album I linked to, it’s another boring album by one of my all-time favorite bands.

-By Andrew McNally

Queens of the Stone Age – “…Like Clockwork”

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I Sat By the Ocean,” “Fairweather Friends”

“…Like Clockwork,” the long-teased and longer awaited new album from hard rock heroes Queens of the Stone Age, should be listened to with “Songs For the Dead” in mind, their behemoth, Grammy-winning album from 2002. “…Like Clockwork” is similar to “Songs” in three ways. The first is the re-introduction of former contributors Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, as well as ousted bassist and founding member Nick Oliveri (who only shows up in background vocals on two songs, but it is still a re-introduction). The other two similarities are thematic. “Songs” was a concept album, imagining a radio playing on a drive in southwestern America, and featured many Christian references. “Clockwork,” too, seems to feature a number of Christian references, if nothing more than metaphors. (Compare 2002′s “God Is in the Radio” to 2013′s “My God is the Sun”) Casual listeners might equate Josh Homme’s lyrics to those of the religiously-tortured soul of Dave Gahan, but Homme frankly chooses to sing about whatever he wants to.

The third similarity is the idea of conventional radio rock. “Songs” had a running theme of QOTSA’s songs playing on every station, in an attempt to solidify themselves as the kings of conventional rock radio. It worked, oddly enough, and they reflect that on “Clockwork.” Every one of the ten tracks feels significantly more conventional and regular than anything they’ve done before, with musical build-ups in slow songs and catchy guitar rhythms in the faster ones. Homme’s vocal melodies are incredibly catchy, even radio-friendly (particularly on the track “If I Had a Tail”). The album is still heavy, of course, but this is a side of QOTSA that has always stayed subtle. It is the band’s shortest album, and has only three songs over five minutes, a departure from the five on “Songs.” Homme likes to throw the audience loops and keep things fresh, which is tough to do for a rock band. “Clockwork” is almost a bit of a joke, in a way, that the original thing about it is its unoriginality. One almost has to wonder if the almost-optimistic sound is a response to Homme’s brush with death, or whether it is more of QOTSA’s relentlessly great tongue-in-cheek humor.

This does lead to some problems, however. “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” the opener, never hits the intensity it thinks it does, and although the hauntingly-rhythmic “I Sat By the Ocean” follows it up, the tepid and unnecessary “The Vampyre of Time and Money” sits right after. And having this feeling of ‘Is this a joke or not?’ is a little iffy given that people have been waiting six years for a new album. The album grows stronger as it proceeds though, bolstered by barely audible but still appealing guest spots from Trent Reznor, Alex Turner and Sir Elton John (which was a surprise to come across). Homme is still heroically egotistical at times, which is when QOTSA is at their best. The album lacks at some points, falling too far into the unoriginality, but it is yet another great entry from the band overall.

-By Andrew McNally