Talkhouse Contributing Writer Kathy Valentine has toured everywhere several times over, recorded major label and indie albums, done countless TV performances, and written or co-written hundreds of songs, including hits by the Go-Go’s — the band she joined at age 22 and made music history with. Kathy lives in Austin, Texas, plays guitar in “garage glam” blues band the BlueBonnets, and produces aspiring female artists. She is writing a book and screenplay while working on a degree in Fine Arts/English. She’s on Twitter and Facebook.
Summer of 1968, I’m a kid visiting my dad’s family in west Texas. One day, my 16-year-old cousin KJ holed up in his room for hours listening to the same song, over and over. Decades later, he would blow his own brains out in a desperate and defiant last bid for peace, but at that point he was finding his teenage escape and soothing his psyche, like so many of us do, in music. Sitting on the hallway floor outside his room, my friend and I made Ken roll around with Barbie on a makeshift doll bed. I didn’t really know what they were supposed to do, other than their clothes had to be off, but this repetitive, dark thumping riff, barely muted by the cheap door, began to work its spell on me and through me, feeding their plastic lust. “Da duh duh da dunt dunt dunt…” — heavily insistent, before exploding into an A chord, probably right about when Ken would have exploded all over Barbie’s pointy boobs, if he only could.
The song was “Sunshine of Your Love,” and it changed the way I thought about music forever, even though I wasn’t even into double digits age-wise. My little singles box, bright and cheery with its swirly yellow and orange graphics, was filled with hits, and I could sing along to every word, but never, I mean never, had I felt something inside get stirred up like “Sunshine of Your Love” made happen. It would be a few more years before I was buying my own Cream LPs, but my appetite for bubblegum pop was somewhat diminished and ever so slightly tarnished as I realized I was capable of a deeper response to music.
I am fond of pointing out that being my age means I got to be a teenager in the ’70s — for me, a Marlboro-sucking, reefer-rolling, acid tab- and mescaline-consuming era accompanied by Led Zeppelin’s stolen riffs, Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott and “Mississippi Queen” cowbells. I got turned on to the inimitable perfect sound of a Hammond organ by Deep Purple’s “Lazy,” and pretended I was some kind of suburban bad-ass by loving Black Sabbath. Eventually I’d settle into a soundtrack of Stones and Hendrix and ZZ Top that would lead me to the original artists, aka the blues — the seed from which that tree of rock, at least the branches I hung from, had sprung.
So in the ’90s, when I first heard Queens of the Stone Age, it triggered an instant flashback. It was that sound, that outrageous application of tone coupling with urgency, that got my attention. I think tone rules; tone is king, queen, and every overlord in between. In my most definitely humble opinion, each QOTSA song is a mastery of tonal quality and that is what defines this band more than anything. If you don’t hear the music and know instantly who the band is, by the way it sounds, then something is amiss.
I’m into this record — …Like Clockwork has all the Queens of the Stone Age trademarks: artfully arranged space, beats, and noises, unpredictable epic turns and heavy blaze cut through with plaintive and unexpected melodies. The production, credited to Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age, runs the spectrum from stark to lavish. Think of a George Martin orchestration, but like if he were an alien from Mars.
The first track, “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” is a stripped-down manifesto of ominous groove, which gets to some interesting places before trailing out on a melancholy cello line five minutes later. If you’re new to the band, keep listening — the record is filled with some of Josh Homme’s best writing. The well-placed “I Sat by the Ocean” follows, and is probably the most straight-up QOTSA song I’ve heard. There’s a cool ballad, “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” the classic “My God is the Sun.” No one does good-humored serious better — the song is a playground, and anything goes; sound is pushed around into crescendos and shape-shifting interludes, pages are torn from the Beatles bible (the eight bars of warp towards the end of “Smooth Sailing” brought to mind “A Day in the Life”), there’s loads of razored riffs, industrial precision, anthemic refrains, (“If I Had a Tail”) and choruses of voices. Occasionally, Ziggy-era Bowie pops his head up in the background like an aural photobomb, especially in “Kalopsia.”
Throughout the record, whether it’s Dave Grohl or since-departed drummer Joey Castillo, the drums are recorded and played like they’re supposed to be. I’m old skool that way — happy when a snare drum actually sounds like a snare drum, and even better when the drum parts have enough personality to be an integral part of the song.
For a week I listened to this record and didn’t know anything about the star-powered special guests until I did a little research, but even these folks represent the consistent duality of opposites — that unlikely contrast — that makes Queens of the Stone Age so great. Among the names: Trent Reznor and Elton John. Why not? The record encompasses darkness and light. It’s caveman-meet-robot. It’s gothic gloom with pink lipstick and long lashes. This is music that’s dumb and smart at the same time. I don’t care much about the stoner rock mantle that Homme & Co. either court or are endowed with; the main thing I never want QOTSA to lose is their sexy and subversive edge. So I don’t know if …Like Clockwork will make some Taylor Swift-loving little girl’s dolls get it on and convert her into a future little rocker chick, but it’s a sure relief to this grown up rocker chick that Queens of the Stone Age are still around making rock & roll the way I like it.