Queens of the Stone Age were already, without question, one of the best rock bands in years when their last album, "Rated R," came out. Now, with the addition of two great refugees of the Seattle music scene, they are approaching perfection. Mark Lanegan, former lead singer of the dearly departed Screaming Trees, and Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters and Nirvana are both on board this time, along with original bassist/singer Nick Oliveri and guitarist/singer Josh Homme, for "Songs For The Deaf." The album opens with the Oliveri-led "Millionaire," a high octane screamer reminiscent of his songs from the previous album. After that, the band's pop sensibilities shine. "No One Knows," the first single, has a beat that you cannot get out of your head, and Josh's vocals are almost beautiful on "First It Giveth" and "The Sky Is Fallin'," which sounds like the Beatles meet Black Sabbath. After the ridiculously rude and heavy "Six Shooter" the catchiness comes back with "Go With The Flow," "Gonna Leave You" and "Do It Again," each a possible second single. Grohl's distinctly heavy style of drumming is a great advantage, adding a dimension to the songs that was slightly lacking before. Lanegan lends his wonderfully deep and raspy voice to "Hanging Tree" and the best track on the album, "God Is In The Radio." He also co-writes three songs, including the final track, "Song For The Deaf," which harkens back to their self-titled debut album. And let's hear it for a "hidden track" that is listed on the back cover of the CD. Here's hoping that Queens will get the recognition that far less interesting and talented bands such as Limp Bizkit, Korn, The Hives and The Vines are getting. Even if they don't, however, they will continue to put out fantastic albums that those of us lucky enough to like them will cherish forever.I wrote that on the Amazon page for Songs for the Deaf right after it came out; it's not nearly as embarrassing to read as I'd feared it would be. I should point out a couple things. First, I'm strangely proud of myself for pegging "Go with the Flow" as one of a trio of potential second singles, since it became the band's biggest or second biggest hit. With the jittery piano, wavy lead guitar and Homme's high, catchy vocals, it's one of my favorite songs--it's interesting to look back on a version of me that hadn't given over to it completely yet. And second, my omission of "Song for the Dead" is almost criminal. It's a dirty, dirgey tune sung by Lanegan; bookended by crazy jamming, its starting and stopping, moaning background vocals, intermittent riffing and soloing all make it an obvious highlight. Otherwise, my feelings on it haven't changed, and the puffing out of the chest you sense when I bash those other bands still rises up in me when I listen to it. I may laud TV on the Radio for making exciting new music, taking things in a new direction, but Queens of the Stone Age have long been the perfect version of what I think rock and roll should sound like. Songs for the Deaf is their mission statement.
Figuring this list out has been a stressful process these past few weeks. My room's a mess, my shirts are wrinkled, I haven't been sleeping enough or eating well, and my facial hair is out of control. Oh, none of that is different than usual? Fine, but even without visible side effects, it has been difficult, first figuring out everything that came out this decade that might be worthy, then deciding what I could leave off, then ranking what I had left over. I listened to every one of these albums at least twice before I started writing, and I had trouble sometimes figuring out how to separate the ones I found almost equal. I say all of that only because I had no such problems with the very top. It was always going to be Songs for the Deaf and Funeral; the first time I thought about doing this they were the first two that came to mind. The only problem I had was the last one, the ranking. I'd probably listened to Songs more, but I'd had it longer, so that wasn't exactly fair. Songs also played more to my tastes, what with all the killer guitars and crazy drums and Mark Lanegan, but every time I tried to place it higher than Funeral, it felt false. Ultimately it came down to one thing: while I love them just about equally on a music level, Songs merely gets me amped up or happy, whereas Arcade Fire's debut digs up deeper emotions, feelings of love, loss, elation, confusion, anger and sadness. And no matter how intense the feeling, I always welcome it back.
When I first got a hold of Funeral, there was a lot of stuff going on in my life. I had been depressed, though I couldn't figure out why; I was in one of my unrequited love cycles; and I had just recently become close with someone who would become one of my best friends, and at that time her family was struggling with the impending loss of her brother-in-law. As is my way, I got close to not only her but her family as well, and specifically her nephew, the one who would likely be losing his dad soon. All of these things were taking their toll, feeding into each other, and then I found this beautiful elegy to heart and home and loved ones. Win Butler sang with such unselfconscious passion, straining past the limits of his voice for the sake of the moment, and the music was like nothing else I was listening to at the time. Integrating accordion and xylophone--along with the more conventional strings and horns--into their Bowie and Talking Heads-influenced compositions, the Arcade Fire were making emotional music that never sounded like it was trying to be anything more than a vessel for what the members were going through when they wrote it. An inspection of the liner notes revealed that several band members had lost family during the recording, and it seemed to explain to me why it spoke to me so much.
"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," the leadoff track, is still the one that hits me the hardest, with its tale of children escaping tragedy. But their fantasy can't last forever: "But sometimes, we remember our bedrooms/And our parents' bedrooms/And the bedrooms of our friends/Then we think of our parents/Well, whatever happened to them?!" Butler's voice cracks on that last part, and many times I would shout myself raw right along with him. "Crown of Love" sounded like both the obsessive I was and the ruined person I would be if faced with rejection by the object of my affection. The slowly building strings added to the resignation of the narrator, leading up to his final desperate plea: "You gotta be the one/You gotta be the way/Your name is the only word/The only word that I can say!" (In a testament to the music, that line and song took on a very different, infinitely more positive meaning for me when I really did fall in love years later.) And the Queens-ish guitar of "Wake Up" is merely the backbone for the majestic choruses that sound like everyone you know is singing.
My favorite song, though, is "Rebellion (Lies)." A driving bass line starts it off, soon joined by piano, xylophone, drums, violins and just about everything else. "Sleeping is giving in/No matter what the time is/Sleeping is giving in/So lift those heavy eyelids," Butler sings, and I used to feel angry and drained when I sang along. But then I saw the Arcade Fire for the first time, at Coachella 2005. It was a highly anticipated set, the album having come out just the fall before. My friends and I made our way up through the crowd as best we could, finally settling on a spot maybe two-thirds of the way up, left-center. They played great, and the people got into it, but the real magic was when they closed with "Rebellion." Win's voice was worn down from all their touring and the wind at the venue, but it didn't matter. At the start of the song, as the bass signaled the beat, a sea of humanity all started clapping in unison, seeming to stretch out from the stage forever, and the sense of joy was palpable. The momentum carried throughout the whole song, as did the goofy grin on my face. I have never had a happier moment at a concert; just thinking of it now is making me smile. There was a time when I thought I wouldn't be able to listen to this album ever again because of the negative emotions that would undoubtedly be tied to it; now it reminds me of the good times and the bad, and how connected they all are. That's the power Funeral has, and that's why it's my favorite album of the 2000's.