Anyone wondering what prompted Elton John and Jake Shears to appear on a QOTSA album just needs to give a listen to the snappy strut of “I Sat By The Ocean” or “If I Had A Tail”: Homme and company know pop, they know catchy, and with a slightly brighter sound this time around, this is pop music too tough, and too good, for today’s radio. Given the cover illo, something like “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” feels a bit on the nose, but it’s also why Dave Grohl is the logical choice to work with these guys: like Foo Fighters, QOTSA have an Aerosmith-like understanding of the moving parts that make rock (not so much rock and roll) work; they may deploy them with more skill than imagination, but they hit the mark more often than not. The sound is appropriately beefy, with textures provided by multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita, while drummer Jon Theodore and prodigal bassist Nick Oliveri keep the bottom firm and full; the guest list also includes Mark Lanegan, Alex Turner, and Joey Castillo making what I guess is his last appearance on a QOTSA album. There’s the expected occasional drippiness (“Kalopsia,” which kind of squanders Trent Reznor’s involvement, and the title cut), but when things start to get over-emo, the wimpiness is generally undercut with a buzzsaw riff or a bit of well-placed thump (“Smooth Sailing,” “My God Is The Sun”).
There’s several versions of this studio recording of the score to Stephen King and John Mellencamp’s tale of heartland family horror, but only the “complete” version is currently available on CD (the one that I have for review), and the generous helpings of dialog from the show won’t wear well on repeated listening, particularly when so much of it consists of women telling pairs of brothers to quit fighting. Instead, grab the digital download I’ve linked here, with just the songs: there’s stark power in many of the performances (Neko Case’s “That’s Who I Am” would have fit just fine on Middle Cyclone); on “So Goddam Smart,” questions of plot and exposition fall away in the dark, ominous performances of Sheryl Crow and the gloriously reunited Dave and Phil Alvin. Producer T-Bone Burnett roped a few of his regular pals into the fun: “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me” are Costello and Burnett at their wonderfully rough and musically playful best (and Costello’s slyly whispered “That’s Me” is the funniest thing he’s done in years). Ryan Bingham brings back the light touch missing from his most recent album on the savage “Brotherly Love” and the simple, open-hearted “You Are Blind.” And I’ll be damned if Kris Kristofferson hasn’t actually found some new songs to add to the four from 1972 that he’s been coasting on for most of his career: “How Many Days” lays bare the cracks in his aging instrument, pushing against the descending guitar arpeggios, while “What Kind of Man Am I” has a bleak finality: “Every word I say / Has come back to haunt me every day.” Mellencamp’s latter-day maturity is reflected in his surprising decision to stay in the background, making his only actual appearance alternating verses with Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz on the final track, “Truth.” Mellencamp’s sincerity has always been greater than his talent, and King’s story has a kind of tedious obviousness to it (“We’re all dead, aren’t we?” asks the astonished Kirstofferson as a gunshot puncutates the album’s conclusion), as presented here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the theatrical version is more effective, and I know that the album would have been better with the dialog left onstage where it belongs.
OK, I suppose that this isn’t technically “black metal,” but whatever: it’s loud, it’s metal, and it’s fucking Saruman. Much of the lavish orchestral production of 2011’s Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross has been trimmed away, leaving mostly Hedros Rama Jr, and Sr, with drummer Ollie Usiskin, to slam and slash some by-the-numbers riffing under Lee’s lugubrious performance in the title role, and the supporting cast’s engagingly goofy teutonic delivery of Marco Sabiu’s lyrics like “Our papal lands have been occupied by force / and thrown into the hands of barbarian hordes.” Its value as history lesson is somewhat undercut by stuff like “The threat of death / We shall have no fear / The threat of death / The time– the hour– is here!” which could pretty much come out of the songbook of any of a dozen useless metal bands. The silly excesses of the previous volume are missed, the lifts from Holst and Wagner are less inspired this time around, and what was kind of kitschy fun last time feels a bit rote this time. But, hey: any of us should count ourselves damn lucky to be having half this much fun when we’re heading toward the century mark.
Other Notable 6/4 Releases
Desire Lines, Camera Obscura
Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man
Feel, Sleeping With Sirens
Forever Halloween, Maine
Grinning Streak, Barenaked Ladies
The Hurry and The Harm, City and Colour
I Will Be Me, Dave Davies
In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, Capital Cities
Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, George Benson
Life As We Know It, Lonestar
Live, Ben Folds Five
Live In Copenhagen 1972, Deep Purple
Old Testament: UA Studio Recordings 1977 – 1982, The Stranglers
Personal Record, Eleanor Friedberger
Quercus, June Tabor
The Sun Comes Out Tonight, Filter
Super Collider, Megadeth
Under the Covers, Gretchen Wilson
We Won’t Be Shaken, Building 429
Where It All Began, Matthew Morrison