Queens of the Stone Age Will Rock You

The promotional copy of Queens of the Stone Age’s second album, Rated R (Interscope), carries a quote from the band’s leader, Joshua Homme: “I’m trying to find a niche for this group, so I can be alone again.”

What Mr. Homme surely means is that there are a lot of rock bands these days that were influenced by Kyuss, the group Mr. Homme led in the early 90’s. Before snagging a deal with Elektra, Kyuss played its vast, volcanic songs at legendary “generator party” concerts way out in California’s Palm Desert. People at these parties took lots of drugs and danced to Kyuss’ music, which itself was influenced by Black Sabbath, the Stooges and other heavy-metal templates. This sounds like paradise to me.

Anyhow, although Kyuss never achieved substantial commercial success, Mr. Homme’s music inspired a bunch of old school-style rock bands, including Nebula and Fu Manchu, and, in turn, the dumb, redundant tag that continues to be used to describe them: stoner rock.

Not one to ride with the pack, Mr. Homme regrouped, so to speak. Queens of the Stone Age made its debut in 1998 with a self-titled album, and now, with the ingenious, taut Rated R , Mr. Homme’s found his niche as the leader of the best post-grunge rock ‘n’ roll band in America.

At a time when the music of Limp Biz-kit and other modern hard rockers rarely rises above a gray plasterboard of thudding riffs and thuggish raps, Mr. Homme builds his sinus-clearing walls of sound with a more artful array of sounds, influences and ideas, most notably his gift for crowning repetitive or discordant chord structures with simple, resonant melodies.

“The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” falls in the repetitive category. An ominous guitar riff propels this song, but there’s an unashamedly melodic vocal line in the chorus: “Whatever you do-ooh-ooh-oo, don’t tell anyone,” sings Mr. Homme, who has a remarkably fine and supple voice for his line of work. He’s not afraid to use it either, not even on those sweet “ooohs,” which would shrivel the codpieces of most heavy-metal singers. But then a guy who named his band Queens of the Stone Age specifically to mess with homophobic metalheads has got to be secure with his sexuality.

The album’s opening cut, “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” is not likely to achieve the status predicted by its title, but it recalls a soulful influence rarely heard in heavy rock. Mr. Homme seems to have had the Temptations’ 1969 hit “Ball of Confusion” in mind when he conceived this song. But where the Temptations listed global ills over a relentless groove, Mr. Homme narrows his scope to a list of addictive substances–”Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol”–which he chants repeatedly over his own unyielding, unhinged guitar playing.

Other lyrics on Rated R are more artful, such as those on the lilting “In the Fade” (sung by the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan) and the non sequitur-heavy “Leg of Lamb.” But like any good rock ‘n’ roller, Mr. Homme clearly favors sensibility over sense.

“Monsters in the Parasol” is Rated R ‘s gem. The anxious verse begins simply, then shifts gears in the chorus into an angular tangle of riffs and irregular chord patterns worthy of King Crimson. Not far behind is “Quick and to the Pointless,” the noisiest, most raucous song that I’ve ever heard.

Rated R contains yeomanly work from musicians other than Mr. Homme, especially drummers Nick Lucero and Gene Trautmann. But the record’s incandescence is clearly Mr. Homme’s achievement. Of course, that means the imitators can’t be far behind. For the moment, though, Mr. Homme has gotten his stated wish. He’s outstanding in his field. Alone.

–Rob Kemp

Arab Strap: Murmurs of the Heart

Perhaps I’m a cultural bigot, but there seem to be two sorts of Scottish pop artists. There are the precious infantile types (such as Belle & Sebastian) that are overly fond of their stuffed animals and peppermint memories of youth, even though they possess a certain recognition of their delicate perverseness. They tend to be obsessed with the idea of “perfect pop,” as evidenced by Orange Juice, the Vaselines and Teenage Fanclub. Then there are the acting-out drunks. No less infantile, they shamble into one sexual disaster after another, then tell us about it. They seem embarrassed to be involved in the creation of music at all, let alone life itself.

Arab Strap’s Elephant Shoe (Jetset), out in the U.K. last year but just released here, is a strangely engaging example of the latter. Instead of bellowing his social faux pas to the world à la former Pogues member Shane MacGowan or Tom Waits, vocalist Aidan Moffat sounds like he’s singing into his shirt. His voice rarely rises above a sotted murmur, which leads to a lot of reaching for the lyric sheet (mercifully included). Even the album’s title is garbled: “Elephant shoe” apparently is Scottish slang for “I love you.”

Move your chair a little closer to the speakers, however, and Mr. Moffat’s concerns become as transparent as a drained pint glass. “Just shut the fuck up / And tell me bit by bit / ‘Cause all I can see / Is his hand grabbing a tit,” Mr. Moffat sings on “One Four Seven One.” If it were Woodstock 1999, this would no doubt be followed by an encouragement toward shirt lifting, but here it’s a confession embarrassed by its anger. Mr. Moffat’s lyrics are laced with Charles Bukowski-style sentimentality, which just adds a layer of unintentional unseemliness to Elephant Shoe ‘s honestly poetic dissipations.

Bandmate Malcolm Middleton’s compositions parallel Mr. Moffat’s crestfallen irony. He often seems to be pretending that he either doesn’t like the music that he’s playing, or that he threw it together after waking up facedown in an ashtray. Mr. Middleton moves between mopey Velvet Underground balladry and Joy Division basslines, primitive Wurlitzer rhythm-box patterns, and jokier power-rock and electronic touches. Being a child of the 80’s, he’s too hip to cop to his Smiths and Depeche Mode fascinations–and hipness is, of course, just another expression of self-disgust.

– D. Strauss

Tom Lehrer: Remains to be Heard

In order to catch the new Woody Allen movie the other night, my wife and I employed a 16-year-old babysitter who, I discovered, had never heard of Woody Allen. She had, however, seen several Adam Sandler movies.

I kept thinking about this cultural divide when I cracked open Rhino’s three-disc completist’s set, The Remains Of Tom Lehrer . How would anyone Britney Spears’ age ever comprehend the cosmic significance of an oddball math professor who wrote rapier piano ditties satirizing postwar America?

Pushing 40, I am the tail end of the last generation to actually grow up with Lehrer in the house. My parents, who missed the Beatles completely, played Lehrer’s handful of records (probably in part because he’d been a contemporary of my father’s at Harvard), along with Sherman, Flanders and Swann, the Chad Mitchell Trio and other novelty folk-classical acts.

Yet somehow, as novelty musicologist Barry Hansen (better known as Dr. Demento) observes in his liner notes, despite the topicality of much of Lehrer’s work, “its appeal has outlasted that of virtually all other comedy of its time.”

So how to pitch Lehrer to today’s youth? He might be dubbed “the Weird Al Yankovic of the 50’s and 60’s,” for, as Mr. Hansen writes, on his radio show Mr. Lehrer is second only to Weird Al in requests.

But that comparison diminishes Mr. Lehrer’s dextrous verbal genius. He graduated from Harvard at 18, and in a 1997 online chat revealed that “I pride myself on being literate to the point of pretentiousness.” Besides, Allan Sherman was a truer 60’s approximation of Mr. Yankovic, since both wrote new lyrics to pre-existing tunes. Mr. Lehrer wrote his own melodies, which had traces of Cole Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan and Stephen Sondheim (with whom Lehrer attended summer camp when they were kids).

Mr. Lehrer was also a progenitor of the do-it-yourself movement of the Ani DiFrancos of this world. In 1953, he recorded his 10-inch debut , Songs by Tom Lehrer , in a one-hour session at a cost of $15, and proceeded to sell it himself by the thousands, despite a lack of radio airplay and also its controversial content. (One cheerful song immortalized “The Old Dope Peddler.”)

He also was ahead of the marketing game in simultaneously releasing live and studio versions of the same material. And he proved a canny cultural forecaster, predicting developments like the CNN theatrics of the Gulf War. Mr. Lehrer’s 1965 song, “So Long Mom (A Song for World War III),” jokes about watching Armageddon on TV.

Mr. Lehrer performed rarely (and not since 1967); he wrote only about 50 songs (the Rhino collection repeats several in live, studio and orchestral versions). He peddled tunes to be sung by others on the TV shows That Was the Week that Was and The Electric Company . And then he stopped altogether, though he continued to teach math, splitting his time between Santa Cruz and Cambridge.

The 72-year-old Mr. Lehrer was coaxed to rerecord a handful of lost tracks to round out this set, and his voice is reassuringly indistinguishable from recordings made a half-century earlier.

Even his spoken introductions in the live versions are precise verbal zingers worthy of Albert Brooks: “During National Brotherhood Week, various special events are arranged to drive home the message. This year, for example, on the first day of the week, Malcolm X was killed, which gives you an idea of how effective the whole thing is.”

Then he sings, “Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics / And the Catholics hate the Protestants / And the Hindus hate the Muslims / And everybody hates the Jews.”

Did I say Lehrer’s work has dated? I take it back.

–David Handelman