Them Crooked Vultures: “Them Crooked Vultures”
What, exactly, are we supposed to expect from a supergroup– especially one that includes not just one but two genuinely iconic rockstars in John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl, as well as an equally twisted genius in Josh Homme? I ask the question at the outset because I think it is bound to color the way we look at Them Crooked Vultures, but also because I think it’s a question we tend to answer incorrectly; whenever there’s a meeting of the minds on this level, it seems out first inclination is that the musicians in question should be using their collective talents for something grand, or at least something unique. Historically, though, most supergroups tend to feel more like busman’s holidays– a chance for the musicians to cut loose and simply enjoy playing in each others’ company, even if the result is something decidedly similar to what they do in their day jobs.
Of course, things are a mite trickier with Them Crooked Vultures. This is a case of history turning in on itself: Not only do we have a member of Led Zeppelin, but also two musicians who have been as active as anyone else in keeping the Zeppelin spirit alive, particularly in their collaborative Queens of the Stone Age album, Songs for the Deaf. So that Them Crooked Vultures should sound an awful lot like Zeppelin is no surprise– but does it really sound like Zeppelin, or like Zeppelin as channeled through QOTSA? One could call this album one big Zeppelin tribute, or one could call it a decidedly Josh Homme-centered album, and in either case it would be mostly, but not entirely, correct. This is a record on which it’s hard to tell the line between history and homage, the sound of three like-minded musicians making the kind of record that makes sense to them and ending up with a sort of funhouse of influence and inspiration, where any given riff or idea could have quite reasonably come from any of the three of them.
That’s what makes Them Crooked Vultures a fascinating project on a purely intellectual level; what makes it work on the level of music is that it’s simply a smashingly good, thundering rock and roll record, vulgar and unadorned in all the right ways and packing just the right kind of firepower, but also running deep with its weird detours and quirky little flourishes. It’s an absolutely killer rock record that doesn’t skimp in terms of monster riffs and pummeling drums, but it also has personality; and if it’s the exact kind of record that one would expect from this particular ensemble, it’s also a record that no other group of musicians could have executed quite so brilliantly.
The undeniable centerpiece is “Elephants,” a stomping epic that suggests the behemoth spirit of Led Zeppelin with its very title even as it compresses an entire Zepplin album’s worth of riffs into its twisting, serpentine structure. But listen closer and you’ll hear what makes it more than an knockoff: The lyrics, almost surely written by Homme, are devoid of any of Robert Plant’s fascination with myth and the occult, instead preferring scumbag love lyrics and self-deprecation, non-sequiters instead of literary allusions; meanwhile, the guitar sound is swampy, scrappy, a dead giveaway that this is a Homme production. But the important thing, the thing that lingers long after these technical distinctions, is simply that the song kicks ass.
Similarly, the rest of the album finds the trio bending their individual obsessions and shared ideals at will, cramming a lot of ideas into what is ultimately a very simple-sounding rock and roll record; its sheer momentum and gleeful energy make it feel streamlined even as the band takes weird detours into psychedelic jams and carnival-esque instrumental passages, playing it fast and loose in one song and bending time and structure with labyrinthine riffage in the next. What makes the album addictive is that the band treats all of this like business-as-usual rock and roll, whether they’re playing hard-hitting and straight-to-the-point rockers or cramming riff after riff into a proggy epic, treating little wrinkles like Grohl’s harmony vocal in “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” or the weirder, druggier moments simply as part of the gig.
And so Them Crooked Vultures ends up pulling off a neat little trick: It’s exactly the kind of album you’d think these guys would make, yet it manages to be powerful and even unpredictable just the same. There’s simply too much twisted rock and roll genius here for the album not to revel in weirdness from time to time, and yet, it is, most assuredly, a busman’s holiday, and no matter how out-there the songs get, the immediate joy here is simply hearing these guys play together, banging around and stirring up a helluva ruckus. It’s a mighty racket, and that’s what elevates the music from merely interesting to utterly thrilling.