Queens of the Stone Age's Super Sad True Love Story

On the pointless, entirely necessary reissue of Rated R

It is, objectively speaking, the best opening track of the past decade, any record, any genre; it is a list of drugs. The lyrics to "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" are as follows: "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy, and alcohol. Cocaine." That's the chorus: "cocaine." More accurately, "C-c-c-c-c-co-caiiiiiine." (Or "Co-co, caiiiine, wooooo!") Add a thudding, knuckleheaded bass riff and equally Neanderthalian drums, a blithe guitar anti-solo, pounding keyboards, a few whispered asides ("Wake up!" "Cocaine!"), and none other than Rob Halford screaming maniacally on the climactic chorus, because how is Rob Halford gonna miss this? That's it. A brisk 2:44 of glorious, pulverizing perfection. Any day that does not begin with "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" is a day wasted, a day robbed of its full potential; any album that fails to begin thus is woefully inadequate.

So embarks Rated R, sophomore semi-masterwork from California desert-rockers Queens of the Stone Age, released 10 years ago this month and a still-potent conjurer of righteous head-banging, rampant bemusement, wanton chemical ingestion. The 21st century's finest, most vicious rock band was thereby born and, though dormant lately, persists to this day, three subsequent records (2002's epic, steamrolling Songs for the Deaf is probably their best, but it's less fun to talk about) and myriad lineup changes (most trivial, one devastating) later. No need for a eulogy. Really.

And yet here we have a luxe Rated R reissue—not remaster, just reissue—adding a negligible outtakes-&-live-trax disc to the otherwise unembellished, still-in-print original. Pointless? Mildly cynical? Wildly superfluous? Yes, yes, yes. And yet somehow still entirely necessary. For this record documents the one great intra-band (brotherly) love affair of our time: modern rock's one true rad bromance, its strongest candidate for the pantheon of Lennon-McCartney or Nicks-Buckingham-McVie. The ways still-extant guitarist Josh Homme and since-departed bassist Nick Oliveri perfectly aligned—and, for even greater thrills, didn't—will never reoccur naturally in nature again. They probably shouldn't. Briefly, miraculously, they once did.

McCartney (front) and Lennon (left) in happier times
Davis Factor
McCartney (front) and Lennon (left) in happier times

Homme played the leading man; Oliveri, the irascible scene-stealer. Both were veterans of '90s underground-metal, blacklight-poster-incarnate titans Kyuss, where neither hogged the spotlight. Following that band's dissolution, Homme founded the Queens (" 'Kings' would be too macho," he helpfully explained) as a stripped-down, minimalist, "robot rock" experiment in pure motorik rhythm—their self-titled 1998 debut, featuring mostly Homme on guitars/bass/vocals alongside the first of an eventual Spinal Tap coterie of drummers, is like a metronome decorated with flame decals. Oliveri joined his old bandmate soon thereafter to tour it, and follow-up Rated R was their mainstream-rock ascension: Rolling Stone articles, Ozzfest, and a (very) minor what-was-left-of-MTV hit in "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," a vaguely sensual, mid-tempo, falsetto-chorused burner that Homme occasionally introduced in concert by pointing at some dude in the crowd who was displeasing him and announcing, "This is a song about fucking that guy's girlfriend."

This seemed to be the QOTSA template: the same blazing, guitar-pyrotechnic crunch that made Kyuss such an incongruously sedate thrill, now channeled into nominal pop songs and filtered through Homme's high-pitched, disconcertingly suave croon. Rated R lays its foundation in such jams, from "Monsters in the Parasol" (befuddling thesis: "I've seen some things I thought I never saw/Covered in hair") to "Leg of Lamb" (featuring one of several bizarre, quick-hit guitar solos that seem to be actually smirking at you). Oliveri's job was to blow all that shit up. His two signature contributions here, the extraordinarily well-named "Quick and to the Pointless" and "Tension Head," are abrupt blasts of screaming, double-time, miscreant-punk fury, wherein our hero shrieks things like, "EVERYBODY, EVERYONE, LET'S GO!" and "I FEEL SO SICK! I FEEL SO FUCKING SICK!" and (personal favorite) "HUSTLIN'! LITTLE GIRLS!"

And there you have the greatest good-cop/bad-cop act in rock history, a priceless black-comedy routine only exacerbated by the wonderful visual joke that was QOTSA live: Homme, tall, rangy, aloof, and debonair, playing the heartthrob frontman, while the bald, goateed, oft-shirtless Oliveri glowered silently, until . . . "OOOH, BABY, BABY, YOU'RE SO SWEEEET! GODDAMN! AHHH! AHHH! WHOOOAHHOWWWW!" (A few snarled lines of "Pointless" are sung in Dutch, because, I don't know, you ask him.) The whole thing was just hilarious, just so gloriously deadpan. Homme apparently liked to mumble one phrase over and over onstage: For most of the reissue disc's 2001 Reading Festival live tracks, culled from both Rated R and QOTSA ("Regular John," my friends), his opening line is "This is a song for you"; when I saw them in Detroit around that time, it was, "We're from out of town."

Tenacious D this wasn't, though—what pushes Rated R over the top is a third dimension, an honest-to-god contemplative and somber appraisal of the damage done by all the drugs they'd hilariously cataloged at the onset. Frequent guest star Mark Lanegan's bottomless baritone lends redemptive gravitas to the lyrically weak "In the Fade" ("Live till you die" and so forth); "Better Living Through Chemistry" is a six-minute arena-Krautrock head-trip with the record's one un-hedged, unapologetically badass guitar solo. (The liner notes, old and new, inform us that the song's chorus—"There's no one here/People everywhere/You're all alone"—was "inspired by Björk," which is what you say when you're trying to transcend the genre everyone's picked out for you.) And just to make the transformation complete, the record's slowest, saddest, most poignant moment, the funereal post-bender comedown "Auto Pilot," belongs to Oliveri, voiced in his own somber croon. Few records vacillate between "Yeahhhh! Drugs!" and its mournful opposite with such whiplash verve: "Until my headache goes/Into my head it goes," Homme declares on closing track "I Think I Lost My Headache," before he's swallowed up by an arty cacophony of horns.

The bonus disc here ain't changing any lives. The live stuff is fine, the screaming-Oliveri gem "Ode to Clarissa" is—I'm sure—a fine tribute, and a couple kicky covers, particularly the one of early-'80s new-wavers Romeo Void's delightfully lurid "Never Say Never," make a further case for this band's sonic and psychological range. It didn't last. The volatile Oliveri got the boot after Songs for the Deaf under still-unclear auspices; Homme has kept the band going despite multiple distractions, including Thee Crooked Vultures, his prog-leaning supergroup with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones, trading on their names to perfectly adequate effect. But neither principle is likely to manage a psychological profile as bizarre and mesmerizing as Rated R again, a seemingly random jumble of seemingly disparate impulses, tragedy and comedy, calm and calamity, a list of drugs and a list of side effects.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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