2009 / Music

Review: Them Crooked Vultures Fulfill Supergroup Tag For Wrong Reasons

Rock Stars Band Together For Much-Hyped Debut

The offer for Them Crooked Vultures to rock out on one of pop music’s biggest festival stages last summer might have appeared to be a Willy Wonka-esque golden ticket for a new and entirely unknown band. And it would have been if the three guys in the group weren’t already well used to that kind of thing by now.

Photo: DGC Records/Interscope Records

Photo: DGC Records/Interscope Records

After all, the Vultures aren’t just some millennial upstarts fresh from mom’s basement. The trio is rock’s latest supergroup, featuring such music titans as Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Josh Hommes (Queens of the Stone Age) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin). Sight unseen and sound unheard, this group boasts enough of a riff-rock pedigree spanning several decades of heavy-rock history to get any headbanger doing some neck stretches in preparation for the head-shaking workout to come.

And while the group’s album of spastic, elastic grooves and navel-gazing interludes delivers plenty of neck-snapping guitar licks and rhythmic gut-punches, the Vultures’ initial foray as a unit reinforces their supergroup moniker for the wrong reason. This is because of the music’s easy-going (read: comfortable) attitudes toward structure rather than truly fulfilling the majesty of their combined abilities.

Sinking momentarily into cynicism, maybe it’s a symptom of the diminishing music industry or a result of downward pressure on fame’s 15 minutes in the digital age, but it certainly seems that a lot of rock elite think superhero teamups are the remedy for the career blues. There’s been a glut of supergroups in recent years, and while some superstar alignments have found some degree critical or commercial success (Audioslave, Velvet Revolver, Monsters of Folk), many more (Chickenfoot, Army of Anyone) just couldn’t equal their resumes. Most ultimately just don’t measure up.

Such projects that fuse together massive egos typically breed monster-sized ambition and a sense of entitlement beyond what their music really warrant. The Vultures, a least initially, appear to be low-key exceptions to the bluster-filled rule. They’ve kept the collaboration’s details a closely guarded secret for most of the recording phase and only made headlines in the weeks prior to the album’s release. Furthermore, rumors say the band actually shied away from making their aforementioned debut performance before thousands as a last-minute fill-in for the ailing Beastie Boys at this summer’s Lollapalooza festival in Chicago. (Of course, the trio wasn’t completely shunning the spotlight when, of all places, they packed them in at the smaller Metro club on the festival’s closing night.) Regardless, the group’s preliminary actions suggest these guys want to grow this organically into a true collaborative effort, a band in form as well as function.

The group’s constituent pieces come to the Vultures for reasons as varied as their individual backgrounds. The Vultures are the just latest side gig for the multi-tasking Hommes, who besides leading the Queens, helps steer ham-fisted, boogie-rock combo, the Eagles of Death Metal. Beyond that, he does the occasional producing stint and shepherds a menagerie of players for his ongoing Desert Sessions series of albums. While Hommes has demonstrated a degree of comfort presiding over an unruly brood of musicians, Grohl wants just the opposite at this point in his career. Long-saddled as the frontman and chief creative force for the Foo Fighters, Grohl hungers to shirk responsibility and reclaim his back-seat role as just a powerhouse drummer. The Vultures also gives him a chance to hook up again with Hommes, with whom he played with as a temporary member of the Queens. Grohl again manned the kit for the group’s breakthrough disc, “Songs For The Deaf,” and during a brief tour.

The group’s wise old man, Jones, likely sees the band as a dignified rebound from an aborted Zeppelin reunion of some kind. Shortly after the rock legends reunited for a one-off arena show in December 2007, Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bohnam’s son Jason spent most of 2008 rehearsing with the idea of reactivating Zeppelin to some degree. When singer Robert Plant put his foot down to rejoining his mates, the trio still kept at it with the idea of getting someone else to fill Plant’s bell bottoms. Mercifully, the scheme was shelved before any firm plans were announced. Like Zeppelin, the Vultures give Jones the bassist an opportunity to propel the rhythm with an all-star drummer and at the same time, also demonstrate the breadth of his multi-instrumental skills. The Vultures would be an ideal vehicle for him if only the songs were better.

And this is the chief problem with the Vultures’ self-titled debut. These songs are notable for how unremarkable, loose and relaxed they all are. Like the solitary LP yielded by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s ill-fated Blind Faith, listeners of the Vultures’ disc can clearly hear these songs as the rough-hewn product of hours of jamming. Too many of cuts carry the aura that they came into being not out of careful design but were birthed via the least path of resistance. This suspicion is bolstered by the fact that many of the tracks draw on the angular, wiggly riffs that Hommes specializes in with the Queens. Hommes is the frontman and listeners can detect his cartoonish musical sensibilities in the songs’ unconventional arrangements and even his wry sense of humor with the song titles. Them Crooked Vultures are really a less cluttered, more prog-rock-accented off-shoot of the Queens. Holed up in a practice space, the trio naturally gravitated toward the preferences of the man behind the microphone and drifted toward fragments and passages that suited Hommes’ aggressive, cocksure strengths.

Other songs, like “Caligulove” and “Spinning In Daffodils,” demonstrate these guys are just locking into hard-charging grooves that ultimately plow out through the speakers with little concern for structure. The guitar’s nasty, guttural barking on “Caligulove” constantly nudge over Jones’ prim Mellotron overdubs whenever they threaten to take this into Alan Parsons Project territory. Although “Spinning In Daffodils” opens with an exquisite piano respite, the band’s young hellions (Hommes and Grohl) cut the mike from the keyboards and launch a twirling twister of riffs. More downcast and ironic than Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” this song likewise depicts the musicians as hard-rock marauders galloping across a scorched earth. Ultimately, however, the heaviness of their interplay can’t compensate for the lack of real melodies.

The trio finally clicks on a song like “Mind Eraser, No Chaser,” in which the group’s bruising instrumental heft and vocal firepower align together for a common melodic cause. Grohl, who mostly sticks with pounding the snot out of his drums throughout the disc, answers back to Hommes’ punk Elvis warble during the hook-y chorus. The lyrics are throwaways as the groove flexes and punches, Jones’ grousing bass tramples all that isn’t smashed down by Grohl’s downbeat.
This trio’s attitude toward formula and each other is what keeps “Them Crooked Vultures” from fulfilling its potential on paper. The group consistently threatens to bend or break pop-music templates, but the music rarely does so. When it does so, the results are instrumental fireworks absent any great substance. We’re hearing too much deference, too much complacency and too little ingenuity from these three guys. You can hear they clearly admire and respect one other, but there’s entirely too much politeness in these songs.

The Vultures’ combined histories are evidence that they share many stylistic attributes as songwriters and musicians. They’re all sensational players, lean more towards the heavy side of the musical spectrum and all have a great respect for the all-powerful pop hook. Their past lives have seen them each give new purpose to rock music continually undermined by hacks and money interests.

And yet, now that these three mavericks are in a group in which all subscribe to a common ideal, they’re now stuck at which direction to head in. They’d be better off going into a basement and keeping refining their sound. At this stage, they don’t deserve any golden ticket.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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