Josh Homme and co. are doing it right.
Written by Susan Shepard (@SusanElizabeth)
In December of 2007, a girlfriend and I went to Portland’s Roseland Ballroom to see Queens of the Stone Age. Melodic and muscular, generous with riffs and hooks, their songs would have filled the Rose Garden thirty years earlier. We were both strippers who had extensive knowledge of indie obscurities (by choice) and radio rock (via workplace exposure), and we agreed that Queens were ballsier than indie rock and smarter than cock rock. As we stood in the crowd waiting for the show to start, a guy standing behind us asked if we were fans. Yeah, of course, we said, why else would we be there? Well, he said, frontman Josh Homme was such a sex symbol, that there were probably women there just because they thought he was hot. We rolled our eyes, said something to the effect of, "Man, this is 2007 and you’re in Portland, Oregon. Don’t be a sexist idiot."
That fan made a serious causation/correlation error about the flow of women to a show. A rock band can make the skankiest dude a booty magnet, after all. But he was almost on to something: Queens of the Stone Age really are the one current charting rock band that can be described as sexy. Their sex appeal stems from Homme’s band, not his looks (not to say he lacks appeal). It’s abundant on their sixth album ...Like Clockwork, which came out in June, and missing from just about every other rock band that sells enough to appear in the top ten.
Queens of the Stone Age really are the one current charting rock band that can be described as sexy. Their sex appeal stems from Homme’s band, not his looks (not to say he lacks appeal). It’s abundant on their sixth album ...Like Clockwork, which came it in June, and missing from just about every other rock band that sells enough to appear in the top ten.
To list bands playing popular rock music with sex in it, first you have to list popular rock music, and that is a very small club. Rock is itself a niche market, further fragmented into smaller categories. Fans of popular guitar-based music can listen to indie bands (Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, The National), Pop Rock (Maroon 5, Fun.), Car Commercial Rock (Black Keys, Kings of Leon) or Strip Club Rock (Nickelback, Kid Rock). The most popular of these artists still lack the cultural omnipresence of Rihanna, Taylor Swift or Kanye West. Musically, they stem from the same family tree, branches of the blues-based rhythmic trunk that originally made rock-n-roll a form of dance music. Now those blues-derived elements are most prominent in hip-hop, R&B, dance, and dubstep. They get the beats and rock gets the riffs. That is a problem if it is going to move you below the waist.
Sensuality in music is highly subjective and not strictly quantifiable, but two elements are indispensable for it to have erotic energy: tension and release. There must be elements at odds with each other until they come together. If they’re always in accord, there is no source of conflict to provoke excitement or anticipation. If they are always in opposition, the lack of release becomes frustration.
Frustration and apathy happen to be the two poles from which the rock tent hangs. The recklessness and desperation of the British protopunks—the Kinks, the Who, the Troggs—gives rise to the former. The Americans—the Stooges, the Velvet Underground—the latter. All of this music has plenty to recommend its particular energy, but the strains that filtered down and were intensified lack the originals' tension. While punk’s raw sneer has aggression and desire, the quality of its sexual energy is that of frustration rather than fulfillment. Nervousness, not swagger. At its other extreme is languor, not passion. Think the replacement of desire by heroin. At either end, danger or sex is lost.
Music can still be lovely, diverting, moving without sex; it's just not very rock and roll. I do not feel aroused, necessarily, by minimalist German techno, but I very much enjoy it and the role it plays in my listening life. Oneohtrix Point Never and Demdike Stare records have great utility for me. And I am not dismissing Vampire Weekend (“Step” is one of my favorite songs of the year) when I say that they have craft but not danger. The same for the National, who have drama but not sex, or Arcade Fire, who have bombast but not heat. They just aren’t particularly slinky or physical because their musical DNA comes from a strain where much of the tension has been bred out.
In the case of strip club rock, your Kid Rocks and Buckcherrys, it’s the subtlety that’s been lost. Their lyrics are packed with single entendres and a surfeit of cockiness without self-awareness. The music lacks tension because of its inability to vary from a tiring, constant wail. It’s just the rock, lacking the roll, the rhythm and low end. Syncopation, melodic bass, and humor got left to other genres. The volume is high and the beat constant, with little room for variation.
Queens feel like a throwback to seventies stadium rock with their riffs, thudding bass, and audacious hooks. They can evoke the hair-farmer sludge of heavy, proto-metal like Blue Cheer or Blue Öyster Cult, with whom they share a predilection for the occasional cowbell (when the band appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2005, their performance included an encore appearance of Will Ferrell’s character from the “More Cowbell” sketch). The blues-influenced heavy rock of the seventies had serious low end, too, something missing from much of contemporary rock. Queens have always had a nasty bass sound, thanks to original, often prodigal, member Nick Olivieri—who returned to guest on the new album in a vocal capacity—and current bassist Michael Shuman.
But their sound is also able to comfortably forego rock constraints. The echoes of “I Only Have Eyes For You” doo-wop on “Kalopsia,” the strange, extended coda of “If I Had a Tail,” fuzzy interludes and noisy intros: all are part of a general weirdness that’s not common for charting hard rock bands. They recently covered an R&B hit, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," something that’s become a nearly obligatory rock move practiced by everyone from the Foo Fighters (“Darling Nikki”) to Slipknot (“Got Money”). While most groups observe the standard practice of rockifying songs from other genres, turning them into blunter, louder versions of themselves, Queens instead performed a playful acoustic cover that emphasized the song’s shuffling blues-via-disco bones.
Homme was unafraid to dive right into Thicke’s vocal range in that cover, probably because he’s always been unafraid to spend extended time in the highest reaches of his own voice. “Smooth Sailing” features his falsetto prominently. Homme has never shied from actual singing and Era Vulgaris’ showpiece of a slow jam “Make It Wit Chu” in particular foreshadowed his vocal stretching on this record. Not many rock frontmen are crooners, now, either. Most other hard rock vocals hew closely to grunge yarling, bar band howling, or metal wailing. Homme could easily stalk a stage like a tatted-up Tom Jones with mic in hand, gazing into the eyes of the front row, catching underthings tossed by fans of all genders.