Supergroups are nothing new. But when a former member of Led Zeppelin and Nirvana form a new collaboration with Josh Homme, you really have to take notice. Love him or loathe him, Homme is like Jack White. He just attracts and exudes musical talent. Fresh from production duties for Arctic Monkeys, he is now a full-time member of three bands and actively involved in other side-projects and collaborations. The third of these is a new venture: Them Crooked Vultures, formed with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones. An interesting idea in theory but can they be more than just a trio of individuals? In a word, yes.
It is clear from the start of the group's eponymous debut that Them Crooked Vultures is driven by Homme. His voice and 'sound' is all over the record, propped up by Jones and the ever energised Grohl. This sounds incredibly disrespectful to two thirds of the musicianship on show but ultimately one vision has to preside over everything. Someone has to be in control. And in most groups involving Homme, it is he. And nine times out of ten, this is never a bad thing. Them Crooked Vultures is three legends creating a new sound, from decades of experience, all learning from one another. It is like the band has always been making music.
The opener 'No One Loves Me & Neither Do I' is an immediate highlight; two songs in one, transforming from sleazy garage-blues to metal stomp after two and half minutes. It sets out the stall brilliantly: this is not going to be predictable, dull and uninteresting. Great lyrics in the first half recount a sordid liaison: "I've got a beautiful place to put your face, and she was right...". Into the second half, the guitars and Homme's vocals becomes heavier and more drawn out. The demand "Use me up..." invites a mad last twenty seconds from Grohl and some truly amazing drumming. This reminds us of why Nirvana always wins over Foo Fighters.
The first of two early 'preview' singles Mind Eraser, No Chaser is a bit more loose and chaotic and gives Grohl a chance to provide backing vocals. This is setting a dangerous precedent as he never gets a another chance to leave the drum kit and it is a rare moment. Again the guitar work is magnificent and the whole song is peppered with electronics. The comedic brass at the end shows that the trio are not taking themselves that seriously. New Fang is even better, a solid guitar-driven rock track from the Black Keys catalogue. A great song with Homme shining on vocal duties yet again. Elephants is a torrent of musical proficiency from the start; a blistering guitar riff, bass and drums all blending to create a wall of music, slowing after the first minute to a stabbing arrangement. When Homme comes in he's like Marilyn Manson should be sounding these days - committed, demonic, possessed, all vocal distortion. The effect is incredible. A melodic interlude with wistful crooning kicks in and the song threatens to transform... before dropping back. This psychedelic moment is repeated again to fill the near seven minute duration.
The first real slice of retro arrives with the Cream tribute Scumbag Blues, but the falsetto vocals are not the star here. Jones's 70s keyboards and Grohl's backing make an otherwise straightforward song much more interesting, enhancing the piercing guitars. Led Zep meets Sparks, meets early Bowie for the wonder that is Reptiles, the album veering dangerously close to prog but returning to a more direct agenda after a brief view over the precipice. In it's calmer moments the song is excellent. The longest track on the album (with the longest title) Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up does suffer from an overlong running time and some glam-esque backing vocals but even this behemoth works thanks to throwing in a number of styles into the mix and the best song writing on the album, including "It's a lovely disguise, with the wandering eyes...I get high...now you have something to look up to...", Homme drawls ironically. The mid-section comes to life with a great guitar-break, speeding up slowly and then transforming into an apocalyptic soundscape complete with distant vocals, grinding guitars and clattering cymbals.
Elsewhere there is nothing that drags the album down. Dead End Friends, with it's eastern sound and rolling vocals, is the most Homme sounding song, yet there is late Nirvana in there, showing the steering hand of Grohl. An incredible mix. Bandoliers (archaic pocketed belts for holding ammo) is an interesting metaphor that doesn't go anywhere. But it is a rare, excusable moment of self-indulgence, especially as Grohl provides some of the best drumming on the album approaching the last minute before things settle down. And Interlude With Ludes is the only song that could easily be removed and no value would be lost. The same could be said of Caligulove if it wasn't for more supreme keyboards from Jones, and the guitars filling the outro.
A late gem is the magnificent Gunman, another superb riff and vocal performance from Homme; a master class in song writing that fills the senses with the juxtaposition of rolling verses and anthemic chorus, before the huge closer Spinning In Daffodils. Jones excels again with the delicate piano intro before Homme, in now familiar gothic tone delivers one last deliciously evil vocal performance. This is the sound that Bowie would have achieved if he had taken Trent Reznor seriously. As a parting shot, the final couple of minutes brings everything together for a glorious conclusion, assaulting and embracing in equal measure, fading into a bizarrely subdued ending to a wondrous expedition.
There is a lot to be said for not over-thinking a record. Not to say that this was thrown together in a couple of days; the 'live' feel and stark production give the songs an illusion that they are 'made in the studio' but repeat listens reveal depth and complexity within the spontaneity. At over an hour it is allowed to flow and ultimately, Them Crooked Vultures is perfectly judged. It may not be the best that either musician has been involved in but this does not include Page, Plant, Cobain, or Lanegan. It is something new and different, to evoke something new and different. The music draws from influences of the past and generates a wonderful new present. Grohl and Jones draw out a vocal diversity never before heard from Homme who is on top form throughout. All of the tightness of Queens Of The Stone Age is removed and he is at ease just letting the vocals happen. The same musical liberation fills the entire album. If ever there was a reason why musicians should work together, Them Crooked Vultures is it. And if Josh Homme ever meets up with Jack White, we would have the best band in the world.
-- CS (For The Music Magazine)