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Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures Review

Like many a slightly jaded music lover, I am predisposed to being skeptical about “supergroups.” Been burned once, twice, a dozen times too many. I believe that the last one I was naïve enough to get juiced for was Audioslave—in its aftermath, I was wary enough to lower my expectations (and mostly just ignore) the likes of Velvet Revolver and Eyes Adrift. Even on the recent occasion that they’ve produced above average results (however slight), Monsters of Folk and The Good, the Bad and the Queen couldn’t live up to any expectations beyond the fringe of realistic. So why would I be juiced all over again by the appearance of Them Crooked Vultures, the latest hotly anticipated supergroup to swing into action and drop a relatively unassuming LP? Well, there’s Josh Homme for one, from the best hard rock group of this decade. There’s Dave Grohl for another, from one of the best hard rock groups of the last decade (and the none-too-shabby Foo Fighters). And finally there’s John Paul Jones, from the greatest hard rock group of, um, ever. This isn’t a supergroup; it’s the council of axe-wielding gods deciding to send their favor to mortals.

But there I go again—drooling over the impossible dream knowing full well that there’s going to be some sort of irredeemable Jar Jar Binks in the mix to spoil it all. The Binks in this bunch is an intangible one, though. It’s not that you wish it was as good as the best of Zeppelin, Queens and Nirvana; it’s not that you expected this record to completely alter the course of history with its atomic landing; it’s not even that the band doesn’t sound like they’re firing on all cylinders and having a whale of a good time. The drawback left me struggling for a terse explanation, so instead I shall dance around it in hemhaw indecisiveness while praising it for its sure-footed charisma and tremendous performance. Yes, the eponymous offering from Them Crooked Vultures might lack greatness, but the band grazed its collective talons against the prize. It’s like a satisfying ending when one expected a finish that would be chiseled into the tablets of history—or, more bluntly, who cares: ya got laid, didn’t ya?

The basics of what you would prepare yourself for are all here. Homme cracks out his meaty riffs, ricocheting either with angular tension or flitting through high chords in a squealing solo or ten. Grohl belongs behind the kit where his combination of instinctual finesse, anticipatory timing and jarring force has rarely been rivaled from anyone new in, oh, thirty years? And as he was in Zeppelin, Jones is the everyman workhorse—bass, piano, clavinet, slide guitar, organ…whatever you need, he delivers. And they work well together—their interplay doesn’t sound casual or diffusive; the grooves they ride across bleached wastelands and their quick responses to a different man’s flight of fancy make it sound like these three have been working with each other their entire careers. The problem is that it doesn’t sound like they’ve been writing together their entire careers: the performance might be immaculate, but several of these cuts sound like jam sessions they edited down in the studio instead of proper songs (especially “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up,” which isn’t executed with as much epic aplomb as one would have liked).

The lack of ego-driven control helps a lot. No single member dominates (especially surprising since Homme, as both lead guitarist and vocalist, could have attempted a coup) and you can sense immediately that all three have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for each other—I still vividly recall Grohl playing Wembley with the Foo, and when Jones and Jimmy Page joined him on stage for a rendition of “Rock and Roll,” he was overcome with so much gushing, dreams-come-true glee that it infected everyone watching. That fanaticism might have been helpful for Grohl since he’s the closest to odd man out—not a lot of Nirvana/Foo style to be heard here, but the easiest (but still unfair) way to describe the music of TCV is that it’s Zeppelin-sized English blues and proto-metal as filtered through the psychedelic crunch of QOTSA’s groove-heavy robot rock. Leadoff “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I” could have been an updated Zeppelin B-side and first single “New Fang” would have fit in nicely on Era Vulgaris; most of the rest blurs the lines but remains safely in the realm, and even the prog indulgences sound culled from either group’s repertoires.

Since these sorts of side projects so rarely attempt grand statement in favor of venting creativity and pounding out brash tunes, what really matters are the songs. The early run is particularly impressive, featuring stomping rhythms and gnarly riffs on tracks like “Dead End Friends” and “Mind Eraser, No Chaser.” On the latter, Homme sings, “Drug company, where’s a pill for me?/I call it mind eraser, no chaser at all,” which fits in well with Queens’ typical hedonistic pleasures, but he continues with a devilish smirk by adding, “Robotic mambo me/DIY kit lobotomy/It’s a tuck taste dance craze movie of the week/You buy the doll, kick up your bowl, then piss on the seats.” Later, “Elephants” is the first of three blistering epics (and handily the best thanks to a breakneck Motorhead-esque riff that readjusts to a more deliberate style of punishment in the middle), and even though it wears the mark of this kind of meeting-of-masters venture (showin’ off kinda shit, yeah?), you’re still locked in beneath its trumpeting command. It’s right around here, though, that one begins to wish for a mite bit more inspiration—everyone’s still providing the ingredients, but even the best dish gets tiresome without variation. True, there’s diversity in store, such as the appropriately drugged-out spacey stew of “Interlude with Ludes,” the proggy keyboard swamp in “Scumbag Blues,” and the jerky dance funk swagger of “Gunman,” but a little more (or just less overall) would have helped make this sound like a tighter set. I wouldn’t exactly say the doldrums set in, but you certainly recognize that the album runs past an hour in length.

Them Crooked Vultures never delivers that master track, the kind that could be canonized alongside the best of these musicians’ pasts. Even with immediate, knuckle-cracking winners like “Gunman,” “New Fang” and “Elephants” in the mix, this disc indulges in a cliché even more tiresome than the term “supergroup”: it’s a “grower.” You know, like the third Foo record, Era Vulgaris and In Through the Out Door—all really good albums, but not the best either act produced by a sizable amount. But again, that sort of easy-to-gauge comparison isn’t where it falls short of greatness. Maybe they deserve the benefit of the doubt, and they certainly deserve the freedom to pursue whatever professional passions they like, but we’ve been spoiled into thinking we deserve the best from them every time. Such a selfish sentiment is fitting for my, erm, crooked consideration of this album. This is down-and-dirty rock n’ roll as it was meant to be played by these brilliant musicians, and even short of that intangible missing element, it deserves some shred of your devotion.

"Them Crooked Vultures" is on sale November 16, 2009 from DGC/Interscope.

Dec
10
2009
Matt Medlock

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