Friday, March 25, 2011

Them Crooked Vultures (2009)

How do you define music that, by it's very nature, defies classification? Many bands easily fall into the well-defined categories that record company executives, and marketing people love- this makes it easier for their marketing efforts- does a band track well with 18-24 year old males who eat fast food at least three times a week?

Every now and then, you'll find a band that makes music that completely turns this simple, clean, classification system on it's ear. They don't necessarily defy the system in purposeful ways- they just simply ignore the labels and let the music they create define itself without regard to existing, planned, marketing-friendly boundaries. They just make music, and let others worry about classification. Coincidentally (or not) many of those who ignore the defined boundaries, make some of the most memorable music.

Them Crooked Vultures is one such band. Their self-titled 2009 album draws on a few strong, obvious influences, and a bewildering array of minor, subtle influences, and synthesizes them into something not entirely new- but not entirely a rehash of old ideas either. This fusion of old and new makes them one of the most unique bands of the past two decades, in my opinion at least. When you combine the talents of Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters),and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal), with John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), you should expect to hear a wide range of influences come together.

Many online reviews accuse the band of being derivative- many dismiss them as just another iteration of Queens of the Stone Age. That is an easy accusation to make, as Josh Homme's distinctive vocal style and quirky guitar sounds are the most easily recognizable elements. Personally, I feel those detractors are missing the point- and really only giving the band a casual listen before passing judgment.

Obviously, the album has many elements in common with the Queens of the Stone Age- with Josh Homme providing vocals and guitar work, I would be surprised if they sounded nothing like Queens. Dave Grohl's drumming brings in a grunge-age sensibility. John Paul Jones, who alternates between bass, mandolin, keyboards, and custom made oddball instruments such as the lap steel slide bass (featured on "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I"), you have a strong influence from the height of the classic rock era.

Josh Homme may have the most up-front and obvious to the listener role of the three, but the incredibly talented rhythm section of Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones is the engine that really drives the album. Every track is intensely rhythmic in nature- relying on relentless and quirky rhythms that seamlessly shift time signatures and moods. The structure of the rhythmic elements seems simple at first- driving, repeated licks that, again, are actually fairly complex in clever, tricky ways. The influence of John Paul Jones is very apparent in "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I" - the album's opening track. The first half of the song has more of a blues feel, but switches gears about halfway through into a throbbing, metalcore-like breakdown based on a simple repeated riff. Once the riff is established as the ongoing pattern, something very interesting happens- the riff alternately adds and drops beats to shift it's alignment with the drums in and out of phase. This is very reminiscent of the unforgettable riff that John Paul Jones wrote for the Led Zeppelin classic "Black Dog".

Dave Grohl's influence appears to be strongest in "Mind Eraser, No Chaser" - one of the more straightforward alt-rock songs on the album. The song is structured, and has a feel that would be right at home on a Foo Fighters album- a thought that is reinforced by Grohl's prominent backing vocals in the call-and response section of the chorus.

"New Fang" and "Scumbag Blues" have a strong blues influence and have a sound and meter much like you'd hear on a Cream album. "Scumbag Blues" in particular has Josh Homme singing in a falsetto that sounds similar to Jack Bruce. This "heavy blues" influence rears it's head often throughout the album both in the rhythm/style, and in the guitar sound. Josh's guitar sounds often have hints of early, blues oriented classic rock- the heavy detuned crunch of Tony Iommi's early work with Black Sabbath, shades of Jimmy Page's odd combination of blues, folk, and rock, and a spectrum of effects found in post-punk bands. He ties these sound influences together into a raw and edgy mix that has a distinctive garage-band quality to it.

Several songs throw out the typical "A-A-B-A" or "verse-chorus-bridge" pattern that most songs follow, and adopt more free-form, complex song structures that most people typically associate with progressive rock. The longer songs "Warsaw or the First Breath You Take Before You Give Up," and "Spinning in Daffodils" are probably the best examples of this.

"Interlude With Ludes" is an oddity- it breaks the rules of what we expect to hear from Them Crooked Vultures about halfway through the album. It is an atmospheric piece that was the result of Josh Homme and John Paul Jones experimenting with odd sounds behind Dave Grohl's back. The track has some similarities to Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" in terms of mood and feel. It also brings to mind similar experiments by the Stone Temple Pilots.

"Reptiles" is the song that sounds the most outwardly like a Led Zeppelin song. It's based on a driving repeated riff that has some similarities to snippets of the intro to "The Song Remains the Same" or "The Immigrant Song." The similarities to Led Zeppelin that appear in spots throughout the album are almost inevitable when you have Led Zeppelin's bass player on-board. Them Crooked Vultures is considered by many to be a "supergroup" grown out of people mainly associated with the Queens of the Stone Age. Coincidentally, Led Zeppelin was briefly considered to be a "supergroup" grown out of former members of the Yardbirds when they first came together.

Josh Homme exhibits a wide rang of vocal styles. His voice typically brings to mind bands from the post-punk and post-grunge movements, and is one of the things that causes so many comparisons to Queens of the Stone Age. He does bring in many ideas taken from classic rock as well- his falsetto sounds stylistically similar to Jack Bruce from Cream. There are also many moments on the album where he uses a style, sound, and cadence that reminds me strongly of David Bowie. At times he adopts a more lazy, almost drunken cadence that also reminds me strongly of Jim Morrison- especially during parts of the song "Elephants."

The band records as a trio, but it takes four people to turn them into a live act. It would be virtually impossible for Josh Homme to play all the layered lead and rhythm guitar parts and sing at the same time, and it would be impossible to have someone cover the bass parts when John Paul Jones switches to mandolin, keyboards, or whatever crazy invention he needs to play- and there are dozens of keyboard fills, backing vocals, and overdubbed guitar parts that three people simply cannot cover live without resorting to sequencers or taped segments. That's where Alain Johannes comes in- he's the "Fourth Vulture" - he largely goes uncredited aside from his contribution as part of the band's production team. He does, however, play a key role in making the band a viable live act- switching instruments and roles frequently, even mid-song- he's the lynch-pin that allows the other three to be a live act who can capture all the layered part in the recording on the stage without sacrificing the energy and spontaneity that drives their live act.

To answer those that accuse Them Crooked Vultures of being just another derivation of Queens of the Stone Age, or accuse them of being completely derivative- I think they are discounting the full range of influences the trio brings together, and the skill with with they merge all the different styles and elements together. That, I feel, is the very thing that makes them one of the most interesting bands in recent history- the mixture of the innovative with the familiar. Some would argue that there is no true originality, that all "new" ideas are really old ideas combined together in new ways. Even if that is the case, this band has clearly mastered the art of combining a wealth of influences and ideas into something new. I, for one, can't wait to hear what they put together on their next album.

Track List:
No One Loves Me & Neither Do I
Mind Eraser, No Chaser
New Fang
Dead End Friends
Scumbag Blues
Interlude with Ludes
Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up
Spinning in Daffodils


  1. You're an old man VE. I expect a review on Neil Sedaka.

  2. Old? I barely qualify as middle aged! LOL!

  3. Here's Nigel!