What do Queens of the Stone Age sound like when they’re produced by Mr. Uptown Funk himself?
What do Queens of the Stone Age sound like when they’re produced by Mr. Uptown Funk himself, Mark Ronson?
On the band’s latest, Villains, QotSA follows the lead of other recent bands like Beck, Phoenix, Spoon and others by incorporating electronic elements into the mix. Thankfully, there is little risk that Homme and company will suddenly turn into Maroon 5. In fact, they’d already begun to broach similar territory, whether in the synth elements of Era Vulgaris or in the choice to have James Lavelle, cofounder of Mo’ Wax, produce some of …Like Clockwork.
But on this new album, they flirt more than ever before with “mainstream” elements, all the while retaining the characteristics that longtime Queens fans have come to know and love.
On the whole, it succeeds. Based on the lead single, “The Way You Used to Do,” I was ready to be let down—it is weird to hear the Queens seeming to enter the “who can sound most like the Black Keys?” arms race so many rock bands seem to be participating in, at least for their most radio-friendly tunes.
But after this second track, the album gets better with the intense, staccato “Domesticated Animals” and sustains that level of quality throughout. Homme’s singing is stronger and more nuanced and melodic than ever, and the band sounds tight—which you’d expect from Troy Van Leeuwen and Dean Fertita featuring on guitar and keyboards, respectively, alongside Jon Theodore on drums and Michael Shuman on bass. Shuman’s performance on this album is especially impressive—I kept noticing how good the bass parts were, song after song. Homme is no slouch on the guitar either, as he’s proven for decades now.
Many of the songs are fairly long, usually well over five minutes. This gives time for them to develop unexpected, eclectic sections, making for a compelling listen. In addition to plenty of layered vocals and guitars, we get string and horn elements (presumably synthesized, but who knows) folded into the mix, usually to great effect. Ronson seems to have pressed the band to hone in on their rhythms, which they exploit in a variety of styles, from the punky “Head Like a Haunted House,” to the glam, New Wave-y “Hideaway” and “Un-Reborn Again” and the hard-to-place Southern prog of “The Evil Has Landed.”
There are unexpectedly sentimental moments, too, like “Fortress,” which is an interesting listen despite its somewhat forced metaphors (“If ever your fortress caves/ You’re always safe in mine”), and the closer “Villains of Circumstance”—I never thought I’d hear Homme singing lines like “Close your eyes/ And dream me home,” but he does, and it works.
No fear—there are still cocksure moments and dirty talk on the album. But even the more “macho” songs have elements of introspection and vulnerability, which is something Homme has always been able to do, seemingly naturally and without much contrivance. He also has a talent for what might seem at first like throwaway lines that end up getting stuck in your head, even lines as simple as “Come drink from the water/ Before it’s been drained away” or “Innocence is what you lose/ Like keys and dreams and old tattoos.”
Queens of the Stone Age is an unusual band in many respects, not least of which is their capacity to use the resources of wealth and fame to their advantage, to push themselves and put out commercially successful music that is actually sonically interesting, unlike so many bands of comparable scale.
Skeptics will be proven wrong, especially those who think Mark Ronson helped to kill rock off. The producer of “Uptown Funk,” working with Queens of the Stone Age, on an album released by Matador. If that’s what it takes to make a rock album as interesting as Villains, then bring it on.