Psych album of the week: Them Crooked Vultures (2009)

The hard-rock supergroup’s only album is in equal measures heavy, psychedelic, and bristling with confidence

Them-Crooked-Vultures

Them Crooked Vultures.

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What do you get when Nirvana’s drummer introduces Queens of the Stone Age’s singer to Led Zeppelin’s bass player and they all decide to form a band? Why, Them Crooked Vultures, of course.

The band’s only album, 2009’s Them Crooked Vultures, is overflowing with hard-rock excellence. It’s heavy, psychedelic, lascivious, and riff-tastic in equal measures. It bristles with the confidence that comes from owning it.  

Kyuss, the band that made Josh Homme famous, became synonymous with the label “stoner rock” (i.e., heavy, deep, and slow) in the early 1990s. He went on to form the even more popular heavy-rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age, who also roughly fall into this category. With Homme’s singing and guitar playing out front with the Vultures, things sound roughly as you might expect when adding a hard-rocker’s-delight rhythm section of Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones. It’s like a supercharged version of the Queens’ lost-on-purpose-in-the-desert blooze.

Grohl drums like a man possessed

Grohl had drummed with Homme before, on QOTSA’s 2002 classic Songs For The Deaf. At that time, though, he didn’t have Jones’s inspirational presence maxing out all his hero meters. With his bass idol playing collaborator and mediator in the Vultures, Grohl drums like a man possessed. He displays far more groove and funk than you might expect from a former member of the most popular grunge band that ever grunged.  

Jones’s presence was also a boon to Homme and a fire under his bum as well during the TCV sessions: “I always like to operate under…creating a situation where everyone is playing at the maximum of their ability. And I do that for myself, and I try to do that for others… I want someone to sort of push me along that way.  But we never really reached Jones’ ceiling for his ability.”  

In addition, Jones was there to help Homme hone and track his vocal parts after Grohl had left the party to honour some Foo Fighters commitments: “I was glad I was there to help him through that stage. It gets a bit lonely, especially for a singer. Everybody else is done and you’re just left having to put the vocals on. I was there with him for that.”

“Jones is a crazy motherfucker”

Homme agrees: “My best example of that is the song ‘Mind Eraser’…  that’s the moment when we bonded. When I first sang ‘Mind Eraser’, Jones came into the control room and said, ‘Fucking all right. Brilliant, man. Let’s go.’ That’s when I realized that Jones is a crazy motherfucker. He sees the beauty in the darkness the same way I do. And the darker it gets, the more excited he gets. It became a spot where we really locked arms and charged together.”

The album opens with Grohl’s drums and breaks into a balls-out slide-guitar rock-fest in “Nobody Loves Me And Neither Do I”. Clinking and clanking percussion accents and Jones’s new-found and genre-appropriate distorted bass tones add suitable colour to the song. Meanwhile, Homme drools wolfishly over a conquest. “So I told her I was trash/She winked and laughed and said I already know/I’ve got a beautiful place to put your face/And she was right”.  

Up next is the aforementioned paean to escapism, “Mind Eraser, No Chaser”. The song’s chorus finds Grohl cheerfully singing: “All I want to do is have my mind erased/Drug company, where’s the pill for me/On permanent leave of everything/Dulling up the edge of a razor blade” around Homme’s responses.  The track is a driving number with catchy rhythmic turnarounds, accented by Jones’s squelchy touch-pad signal-processing madness.  

Them Crooked Vultures: laying waste to the soundscape

Elsewhere, “Elephants” stampedes its way through about a million-and-a-half different sections, laying waste to the soundscape in the best possible way. “Lepers riding atop/Pachyderms made of germs/Elephants broken and screaming and all (Roll over).”

“Scumbag Blues” is a fun romp featuring some wild soloing by Homme and clavinet stylings by Jones.  

“Bandoliers” is a highlight, with Homme’s spaghetti-western influences front and centre: “Bandoliers/To fight you dear/Nobody caused the rift/Can’t become what I’m not/You’ve always had my heart/So if it must be broken/So prepare and take aim and then fire”. Jones’ arranging prowess brings in a degraded string-synth section as the track builds up before pausing for a breath three-quarters of the way through. The opening motif reappears and the song twists around itself before clanging to a stop.  

The penultimate “Gunman” is perhaps the album’s finest track. It showcases a distinctly Zep-like stomp groove and almost certainly the baddest riff Homme has yet wrung from a guitar. It starts and stops in unexpected ways throughout, but never loses its drive and sheer head-bobbing transcendence. Homme tells of the tribulations of the titular assassin. “It don’t matter don’t try to explain/You’re just a dog to be trained/Choke chained/You gonna end up under tooth and nail/If you catch a tiger by the tail/Don’t fail.”     

After the album cycle promoting Them Crooked Vultures ended in 2010, Grohl and Homme returned to their respective day jobs. No new Vultures material has surfaced since, despite all members asserting their desire to work together again.  

Fans of this particular brand of brash and twisted hard rock await with impatience any mention of a possible reunion of this “far-beyond-super” group.  

Trippiest lyrics

“On the good ship lolly-gag/LSD and a bloody pile of rags/I hate to be the bearer of bad news/But I am” (“Interlude With Ludes”)

Sonic psych-out

After the never-let-up philosophy of the first eight tracks, “Interlude With Ludes” slows things down considerably. It lopes along awkwardly to breathless, harmonium-like wheezing and (literally) toy drums. Meanwhile, Homme’s falsetto pusher persona spills out: “Acid and poison and chemicals baby/Is what I mean to provide.”

In their own words

“…we felt like the first record should be a steamroller of eerie darkness.” (Josh Homme)

“I would have had a huge problem if I had gone in there thinking that I was going to compete with Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant. But I’m just trying to be myself.” (Josh Homme)

“We all know who we are and none of us have to prove anything.” (John Paul Jones)

“…being in the Vultures is like taking a Maserati down the fuckin’ autobahn, with the speakers on 10.  It’s really fuckin’ exciting.” (Dave Grohl)

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