Commuting with the Devil

A “Review” of Villains by Queens of the Stone Age

By Steve Knapp

Listen up, you probably don’t know me, but I like Queens of the Stone Age. You might also find yourself amongst their legions of fans. Either way, we’re not special. But, I think we can all agree they spark a lil’ somethin’ somethin’ in our naughty bits whenever their guitars come a wailin’, and boy oh boy that’s a good thing. One of their songs hits the stereo speakers and your foot gets a tappin’. And honestly, there’s very little I can say or do to convince you one way or another about them that hasn’t already been thrown out by the music press.

Like them or not, they’ve got themselves a new album and I’ve got that special feeling jiving in my Levi’s. I could sit here and tell y’all about the tight licks, ample use of space and blah blah blah…

“Just shut up, Stove, we’ll listen to the damn thing.”

So how can I add value? Preach the gospel of Homme and the boys? Should I describe my experience crying in the corner as my own songwriting skills look like overcooked asparagus in comparison to QotSA? No! Have some goddamned respect for yourself, Steve. No, this album deserves to be put through the ultimate wringer since half the damn internet seems to want to set fire to anything remotely tasty AND popular these days, let alone anything touched by Mark Ronson.

I had a long and hard think about the best way to approach this conundrum. And then it hit me: if I’m the worst review of this release that people read, what’s the worst thing I deal with every day?

The answer: traffic.

More specifically, Chicago traffic. I-290 from the Hillside Strangler to the asinine left-hand exit at Austin blvd. That’s right, Chicago thought an exit/on-ramp on the left side was a quality decision. And I decided I should spend the full hour and change of gridlock and soul-tearing, on-edge sadness listening to desert rock at its finest.

Will it get me through the drive or will it drive me crazy? Find out next time….NOW!

A little background on my journey: I work the reverse commute out in the far west suburbs of Chicago, a little slice of Pleasantville called Naperville. And no, reverse commutes on the third coast don’t help a damn bit because the infrastructure is only pre-dated by the Appian Way by around three weeks. So knowing that, we can get this masochistic shindig rolling.

Spin one gets me a good bit down the highway and I have to say I dig it. WHOAH BIG SHOCKER! The Queens apologist likes their album?! Get that sarcastic BS outta here. There are plenty of albums I’ve dug at first only to disown later. But, dear reader, let’s be honest with ourselves, these songs…they gots a hell of a driving groove to ‘em that keeps my highway pace feeling solid.

And to speak to the naughty bits again, them tight guitar licks fill that 8-pounds of space between my ears like a soft serve swirl. And the spacing setting up shop in the rhythm section? If you could mix the arm’s-length-waltz at a purity ball with the sweaty sexiness of a coke-fueled sock hop, you’d be in the right ballpark. As soon as I start wrapping my head around the tasty nuggets of composition, I hit the wall of cars at Mannheim. That’s when the true test begins. The listen to get me to this point was relaxed, or as relaxed as it can be hurling down a tollway.

There’s a strange camaraderie birthed by inching along Satan’s slip-and-slide. Lord knows the chances of me hanging out with any of my fellow traffic prisoners is close to zero, but I can’t help but believe in unity through misery. “Let them eat asphalt,” or something like that. I have great faith that, in our moment of communal misery, we are all filling our heads with some kind of audio distraction: music, NPR, screaming to mitigate the pain of existence, etc…

So was this sweet slice of desert grooviness I picked for my time-served truly better than what my gridlock compadres were married to? Well, I suppose you would have to ask a different question altogether to get to the bottom of that one. Is the haunting crooning of Josh Homme more substantial in passing time than, say, the calming presence of Kai Ryssdal’s musings on the economy? I considered this as a Dodge pickup nearly gives my lil’ hatchback a speed strip on the side as it barrels down the shoulder. The bastard. That aside, the rich harmonies of multi-tracked Homme do well to express my road rage, whereas the voice of Marketplace might simply calm me down. And unless Mr. Ryssdal can also slap the skins like Jon Theodore, I think QotSA take this round.

But it isn’t a soundtrack of anger. Hell no. This is controlled madness. When was the last time you heard this much fuzz with this much control? Money for Nothing? Ask your parents, little ones. I think that’s a fair line to draw. Big time rock groups in their prime taking wild distortion and taming it like it’s some kind of pony bred for a toddler’s birthday. Ever since their eponymous debut they’ve been pushing this kind of tight awesome, this album just perfects it.

“Perfects it.” The drive is getting to me. Christ, I deserve a throat punch. At this point I’ve been in the car for a good hour, so you’ll have to forgive me. There’s some truth in it, though. You build a career around fuzzed-out grooves and you’ll eventually get all up on nirvana’s teat at some point. Right? I reach this conclusion at the same moment I pass the “monumental” Eisenhower Tower, sparking a revised revelation: maybe it’s not about peaking. When you got a lot to say, you do what it takes to keep saying it. You can look back as much as you want and wish you said something differently, but it takes a true driver to force their gaze straight ahead and realize it was always going to happen the way it did.

Now, I should add the disclaimer that pseudo-philosophical bullshit is always a bad idea, especially when you’re getting merged on in a stream of dino-fueled metal going 80 meant to be going 70. BUT, QotSA are catching some undeserved shit for working with a pop producer and I’m at my damn wit’s end trying to understand that hate. What gives a band sustained credibility is for them to consistently release exactly what they want, exactly when they want it. And they certainly have.

So in the end, why the hell does it matter what I have to say about it? Like I said before, y’all are gonna listen to it regardless of what conclusion I arrive at; form your own damn opinions. Just know that this record got me 23 miles east in a better mood than I would be in without it. Whether it was the hyper-original melodies, guitar parts that couldn’t possibly work together but somehow do, disgustingly boppy rhythms, pain-laced vocals or some kind of devilish shit I haven’t even heard of, I loved it all.

Conclusion: listen to the damn album and stay the hell out of traffic.