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Queens of the Stone Age

Rated R: 10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Label: Interscope

Modern rock, that pat radio format/genre grouping that, today, is known to include anyone from the pigeon-weary Kings of Leon to the Hair extras that form MGMT, was, in 2000, a fruitful orchard for the kind of expertly, soullessly lathed pop hits that filled many a NOW! collection. June of that year had listeners in the U.S. under the airwaves tyranny of songs like “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down and Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” whinefest, while anyone craving the kind of ruckus that grunge-era bands (by that point fizzling if not burnt-out) delivered in spades would just have to make do with, I don’t know, Hed PE, Slipknot or some other second rate metal band with a suddenly perfunctory turntablist. A few years before these doldrums, Josh Homme, formerly of Palm Desert shoulda-beens Kyuss and then recently, Screaming Trees, was sitting in a meeting with suits from Roadrunner Records. They’d commissioned an early track, “18 A.D.,” from Homme’s new project, Queens of the Stone Age, for a new compilation they’d called Burn One Up: Music for Stoners, their mouths watering at artificially creating a scene they’d hope would pay off.

Distrustful of Roadrunner and saddled with the reductive label of “stoner rock” anyway, Homme eventually released QOTSA’s self-titled debut on a doomed indie. Its stunning amalgamation of high-watt tube amp heaviness, three-minute pop rock sensibility and immense, robotic timekeeping earned a following- mostly overseas- but it also helped to coalesce Queens of the Stone Age as a force; they were a collection of like-minded SoCal weirdos, who wanted to make the music they’d thought was missing on the radio. Homme, who, dressed like a preppy biker, crooning in some kind of Quaalude drawl, looked and sounded great stacked up next to screaming bassist Nick Oliveri, formerly of the Dwarves, looking like that weird methhead who hung around your high school parking lot looking at the younger girls. Make no mistake; this is an L.A. band through and through, far from the drippy jive of Red Hot Chili Peppers or ostentatiousness of Jane’s Addiction. Coming from the land of showbiz, these guys had a phenomenally slick image that seemed completely organic in spite of itself. This core duo in place, musicians such as guitarist Dave Catching and drummers Gene Trautmann and Nick Lucero were called on to help record the band’s major-label debut, the heavy-lidded, smirking Rated R, whose self-awareness, sense of humor, taste and use of collaborators introduced QOTSA as a sort of Tarantino of rock bands. They had some fucking chops too.

Rated R doesn’t just reference movies in its artwork (the record’s original cover was the MPAA’s R rating title card, seen at the end of older films) or in its liners (“contains: AS – Adult Situations, LB – Lascivious Behavior”); the record itself has such a driving cinematic flow and commercial slickness that it could have easily been the soundtrack for some kind of subversive, sarcastic, sleazy early ’00s comedy you’d imagine the band watching.

“Feel Good Hit of the Summer” kicks it off, with its telegraphic beat and lyrics containing nothing more than a laundry list of seven drugs (the chorus? “C-c-c-c-cocaine!“); though the joke got old a long time ago (and we do get a Letterman-like, obvious reprise later), it’s hard not to get caught up in the headlong rush, what with Rob Halford joining in and especially as it was the first song of the band’s live sets for some time, as on the 2000 Reading Festival set included in this package. That buzzing feedback ends, and cue immediately: the shuffling beat of “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret,” wherein Homme slyly sings out of the side of his mouth about how he and his honey have to keep their affairs discrete, though there’s nothing inconspicuous about the track’s vibes (played by Screaming Tree Barrett Martin) and soaring falsetto chorus: “Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone.” Cue the Minutemen-on-pop detour of “Leg of Lamb,” Homme once again whispering sweet sarcasms into someone’s ear, while undersung doommeister Mike Johnson provides commentary (“so lame“) out of the left channel. The music gives out before the final word out of Homme’s mouth- “fell”- and here we are in “Auto Pilot,” a languid sorta-ballad where these rock stars are flying away on wings of valium and cheap thrills.

Cue the sound of a plane soaring overhead, then bongos; Homme’s guitar creeps low like a just-starting fire in “Better Living Through Chemistry.” Lamenting prescription-medicated solutions to all the world’s problems, the band makes it through one Bjork-inspired chorus before cutting out, and Homme’s feedback lingers and lingers- that fire is about to reach the gas tank, then boom, the band goes upward and upward in psyched-out jam before it settles back into the normalcy of vibes and restrained guitar. Consciousness is altered once more in “Monsters in the Parasol;” doing their best NEU!, Homme sings about acid making him see things “covered in hair.” In comparison, the frenzied little number may sound slight but it’s what’s needed before we hear Oliveri utter, “I don’t even know- what- I’m doing here.” A chorus of girls that sound like the Anarchy cheerleaders from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, only slutted-up, enter with “YEAH YEAH YEAH!,” the beginning of “Quick and to the Pointless,” a giddily exhilarating blend of cradle-robbing, female backing vocals and low-tuned guitars that seem to scream for their lives.

After the final downbeat, what sounds like Rated R’s most sincere song enters; over a dexterous Oliveri bassline, Mark Lanegan delivers the lyrics of “In the Fade,” a tiny ode to resilience, about new beginnings dependent upon endings. Though the smirk is gone for this track, the band’s advice during tough times- “just live ’til you die-” remains incorrigibly smartassed. Cue the “Feel Good Hit” reprise, then Oliveri’s “Tension Head,” another wheezing, overdriven number about staring down one’s hangover and demanding, “no more!” Cue Dave Catching’s 12-stringed “Lightning Song,” the sonic equivalent of a cool rain after “Tension Head”‘s forest fire. The relief doesn’t last long, as the lurching, seasick “I Think I Lost My Headache” approximates vertiginous disorientation via its whining guitars, pummeling riffs and steel drums. “Medicate just to make it soft,” Homme exclaims before his pleading chorus gives way to the track’s round-and-round nausea collapsing in on itself, giving way to what sounds like a New Orleans’ jazz band’s rendition of the song; you sit through this patience-testing two-and-a-half minutes like waiting for the secret scene after the credits; it never comes and in just 42 minutes, this movie’s over.

This re-release includes six B-sides from the singles issued from Rated R; there’s the rollicking, sneakin’ through her window explosion of “Ode to Clarissa,” an ace cover of Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never,” where Homme makes the song his own, an adroit cover of the Kinks’ “Who’ll Be the Next in Line” and a re-recording of early track “Born to Hula.” In our file-sharing times, it’s likely you have these already if you’re a fan of the band, so if you’re not the rabid bootlegger type, they’ve got the 2000 set from the Reading Festival, featuring a lineup of Catching, Homme, Brendan McNichol, Oliveri and Trautmann; listen for Homme’s sardonic stage banter- some of the best in the biz- “This is a song for you,” he says, before multiple songs.

Coming on the heels of the atomic-powered Queens of the Stone Age, the conceptualization and varied stylistic mastery of Rated R made Queens of the Stone Age seem unstoppable. They were a band whom, when you got their jokes, understood their references and listened to their myriad incestuous side projects, you could easily believe appreciated you for your good taste. In addition, the record was Homme’s desired “knife in the neck” to the “stoner rock” label and made damn near any contemporary hard rock release in its wake seem wholly ineffectual, derivative and stupid. Later that year, QOTSA would appear early on in the day on the main stage of Ozzfest; there’s a picture of Josh throwing up his metal horns to a confused crowd with a shit-eating grin on his face.

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