Album Review: Queens of the Stone Age – Villians

Josh Homme and his longstanding band Queens of the Stone Age returned with Villians at a time when the world needed more from one of the music scene’s guitar gods. Villians picks up where their last effort left off – long, dark, heavy riff-driven songs swimming in the depths of Homme’s mind. 
Homme spent his time in between QOTSA albums working with punk and rock legend Iggy Pop on his album Post Pop Depression, and Iggy Pop’s influence is heard throughout Villians. The two worked well together, and seemingly enjoyed working with one another despite the lack of Iggy’s presence on the latest Queens’ album.

Villians could easily be the follow up to PPD or My God is the Sun, and serves as a great addition to Homme’s vast career discography. It situates itself well in the dark void of guitar rock or prog rock where QOTSA wade around just below the surface and stretch deep enough to the blackest depths. Realistically it could fit anywhere in Queens’ discography, as we’re seeing a band who has already found themselves and rarely veers away from their signature sound.

Villians sees Queens work with prominent pop producer Mark Ronson for the first time. The effect of Ronson is scarcely seen, though certain moments on the album find frontman Josh Homme unhinged and dropping his guard – something Homme doesn’t do often. Regardless, you aren’t going to get blood from a stone, and you aren’t going to get Bruno Mars from Queens of the Stone Age.

Homme knows his place in rock and roll, whether or not millennials are listening to his records or Twenty-One  Pilots. “Save me from the Villians of circumstance before I lose my place,” he croons on aptly named “Villains of Circumstance”.  

There are hints of Led Zeppelin and the Ramones traced through the nine tracks. While some places have a clear lack of energy, some songs play at a quicker pace and sound like they could fit in any alternative rock block. “Head Like a Haunted House” begins sounding almost like the opening theme to Ed, Edd n Eddy and the closing riff comes across like a little sister to “Little Sister”. Many other songs sound similar to other older releases by the group. 

The album is more haunting than any of Queens’ previous releases by far. Especially closer “Villians of Circumstance”, which finds Homme questioning his place in the world using binaries, going back and forth between being unsure and entirely certain. Age has gifted Homme with wisdom as he has  grown lyrically. He sounds downtrodden on much of the album, as his deep croon usually does, but this time with a more immediate purpose. 

The album’s opener, “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” begins slowly with a minute of build up before a Robo trip enducing riff breaks the song wide open. The lyrics in the bridge perhaps describe Homme more accurately than anything else he’s written before. “One foot in the gutter, one in the clouds,” he ominously sings over heavy, bouncing riffs. 

“Domesticated Animals” is the closest Villians comes to social commentary, calling out humanity for their own calls for revolution that never comes. Lyrics like “So tell us where’s the goddamn gold,” and the ever-present question of “Where’s your revolution now,” show the singer’s discontentment rising. 

Homme also shows vulnerability like rarely before on Villians. On “Fortress” the band’s frontman is found remembering how everyone in life faces problems, often alone. His stoic conclusion being that you will never know how strong you are until you face disappointment on your own and come out the other side. 

It’s hard to remember this is the same band whose first big hit came in the form of “The Feel Good Hit of the Summer” where Homme just repeated the names of drugs and pills for about three minutes over a driving riff. Their song structure has come to be more diverse than they had been on some of their most popular releases. Villians finds them rocking back and forth between slow, brooding dark rock and quick, dance hall ready tunes like “The Way You Used to Do.” 
This album is one of QOTSA’s most diverse of their career despite only being nine tracks long. In past efforts, it felt like the band was trying to do too much and spread themselves too thin; and on this album, brevity works in the band’s favor. 

Image courtesy of Paste Magazine. 

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New Music From Nas; Rapping Over Old Memphis Blues 

(Image courtesy of FACT Magazine)

A new Nas song surfaced last week called “On The Road Again”. It isn’t actually a Nasir Jones original, but rather, features the hip hop elder statesman rapping over the 1920s blues song of the same name originally recorded by the Memphis Jug Band. 

It was accompanied by a video from PBS from the docu-series American Epic. In part produced and scored by Jack White, American Epic – which will focus on the history of the beginning of music and cover a lot of music of the 1920s – had a number of guest musicians contribute to its soundtrack, but Nas is the only rapper who contributed to the soundtrack. 

Nas gave some backstory to this song, saying, “The Memphis Jug Band sounds like something today.” Nas went on to further explain by adding: 

“These guys are talking about women, carrying guns, protecting their honor, chasing after some woman who has done them dirty. This is not high society black folks. This is the down under, street, wild black folks that they’re singing about.  And it’s the same as rap music today. They were rapping about street life and gangster life and hustling, just a dark side of the world.” 

To learn more about the backstory of the original “On The Road Again” that Nas felt inspired to rap over, click here

Below is the audio of Nas’s version of “On The Road Again” from the American Epic soundtrack. 

(Video courtesy of YouTube)

Artist Feature: The Orwells

2016 was a great year for new music. A lot of highly anticipated new singles and albums were released – from Frank Ocean’s follow up to his blockbuster success channel Orange, to David Bowie’s new (and final) album, to Kanye West’s Life of Pablo. Even Brand New released their second new song since 2009. Lost in the dust left from the impact of so many mainstream artists’ new releases was the new music from Chicago suburbs’ garage-rock revivalists The Orwells.

They released three new singles from their upcoming new release Terrible Human Beings, slated to drop February 17, 2017. Below is the first of those singles, “Buddy,” a quick burst of energy that clocks in at around a minute and a half.

Each one of the three songs The Orwells released this year shows why this is a band you should already be familiar with. They each showcase their intense, right in your face energy. The band have established themselves as a lively band with incredibly interesting instrumentals that grab listeners by the ears and never really let go. And they’ve continued that trend on their new music while, if anything, getting more experimental – especially on their most recently released single “Double Feature.”

“Double Feature” is the longest of the three singles they released at seven minutes and nineteen seconds. They don’t deviate from what makes them who they are, but they’ve still evolved. The lyrics see the band dwelling on unflattering themes including self-deprecation, taking a girl “under the bleachers,” and going to jail. Mario Cuomo has always had a way of painting a picture with his words, developing characters with less-than-charming backstories and habits; and has a knack for stringing together clever lines. The rest of the band (Henry Brinner on the drums, Grant Brinner in charge of bass playing duty, and Dominic Corso and Matt O’Keefe each playing guitar) supplies power-packed backdrops for Cuomo to belt out Jim Morrison-esque vocals over. They’re talented at playing music that ranges from simple and catchy, to intriguing and distorted, and merging back and forth with ease.

The band started playing music together in 2009 when they were still in high school and had known each other for even longer – Henry and Grant Brinner are twin brothers, Cuomo and Corso are cousins, and each pair’s families are family friends with each other’s family and O’Keefe’s family.  They quickly became known for their entertaining, energized sets, which helped them to be chosen by the Arctic Monkeys as support for a few American shows in January and February 2014. They made their network television debut in January 2014, as well, playing on the Late Show with David Letterman, who impressed Letterman and his sidekick Paul Shaffer so much they all but begged for an encore (which The Orwells did not give) and eventually Shaffer sort of took things into his own hands – see below. Cuomo’s performance was nothing short of strange, featuring him rolling around on the floor and sauntering over to the couch on the stage and taking a seat mid-song.

The Orwells’ last album, Disgraceland, was their first to make it to the Billboard 200 – debuting at 69 – as well as reaching 16th on the Billboard Alternative Album chart. It received mixed, but generally positive reviews, and was a big step forward for the band when it comes to attention. Cuomo’s storytelling capabilities and the band’s in your face instrumentals mesh with distorted guitar work incredibly well on the second single they released from their upcoming album, “They Put a Body in the Bayou.” The bass is catchy throughout the song, the drums play steady and powerfully, the guitar weaves through distortion from beginning to end, as Cuomo belts out vocals that just sound like they’re coming from a garage somewhere. This is probably the best representation of what to expect from the band and it really showcases them taking the step from being good at what they do, to being great at it. Here’s the audio for “They Put a Body in the Bayou,” check it out and get ready for The Orwells’ new album, Terrible Human Beings, out February 17, 2017.

Artist Feature: Mick Jenkins

Chicago has had a history of producing prolific rappers and hip hop artists – for instance, Common, Lupe Fiasco, and of course Kanye West – yet recently the city has seen an influx of talented rappers and hip hop artists, many of whom are flying under the radar. Yeah, Chance The Rapper comes to mind; but following the immense success of his most recent mixtape Coloring Book – which reached #8 on the Billboard 200 and became the first album to chart based solely on streams –  it’s safe to say he’s becoming a household name in the genre, if he isn’t already. One of the unsung rising stars of Chicago’s flourishing hip hop scene, Mick Jenkins, is releasing his proper debut album The Healing Component later on this month.

 

After Jenkins’ 2014 mixtape The Water[s] was well-received by critics (including a 4/5 from the hip hop magazine XXL, and a 7.8/10 from Pitchfork Media) he garnered some recognition in the hip hop scene, even outside of Chicago. Jenkins established his name with his talent as a lyricist and his intellect that allowed him to be as much witty as thought-provoking, frequently mentioning water as a metaphor for truth. This speaks to the character of the Chicago musician, that his lyrics rely more heavily on the hunt for truth and his conscience than bragging about money and possessions or a fondness for drinking cough syrup. Following The Water[s]’ release he appeared on the 2014 Smokers Club World Wide Roller’s Tour which featured Method Man and Redman, among others, opening himself up to a bigger audience than he’d ever had the opportunity to before. In 2015, he released his EP Wave[s], a sort of follow-up to The Water[s], which also was met with critical acclaim. Wave[s] was Jenkins’ first chance to respond to having higher expectations following the success The Water[s] had seen, and he made it clear he’s no one trick pony. Mick seemed to briefly express those sentiments in his featured verse on “How You Feel” from hip hop producer Statik Selektah’s album Lucky 7 – released a little over a month before Mick would release Wave[s].  In the verse he says, “All I’ve been thinking lately is can’t flop, won’t flop.” And while Wave[s] was met with positive reviews from critics, this line feels just as pertinent now looking toward the release of Jenkins’ debut album.

 

The pressure is still on Jenkins to bring something special to the table with The Healing Component; especially considering the level of acclaim and popularity that fellow Chitown artist Chance The Rapper has achieved, including the success of 2016’s Coloring Book – which was actually set to include a song featuring Jenkins. The track I’m alluding to here is “Grown Ass Kid” which also featured Alex Wiley and Cam O’Bi, was leaked online the day before Coloring Book’s release. Chance has since revealed a sample clearance kept the track from being included on the mixtape. In his words from a Reddit AMA he was, “bummed it didn’t get cleared it would’ve been track 11.” The song’s beat is a prototypical Chance beat geared for Chance’s half rapped, half sung rapping style, yet Mick flexes his ability to flow with any beat he’s given. Mick’s talent shines through on the opening verse and he forces Chance to keep up with him on the second verse of the track; and despite Chance’s recent rise to popularity, there’s nothing on this track that would make listeners think Mick isn’t in the same position. Maybe he will be soon.

 

mickjenkins

Mick has been on a tear lately, amassing a streak of hot features in the past year or so. What might’ve been his most impressive in that time span was his feature on “Drive Slow” by another fellow Chicago hip hop artist, relatively unknown Bel-Air. Both Mick and Bel-Air go in on the beat like it slept with their mothers. This isn’t one of those songs where you hear there’s a good rapper featured on and you spend half the time suffering through until the feature’s verse. No, “Drive Slow” begins with a catchy hook by Bel-Air and then he delivers a crisp verse where he touches on the state of his city without getting bogged down by the negativity. Donato does a great job of production on this, and the beat bumps with the kind of interesting bass line Mick thrives on – and he feasts on this one. He does what he does best, mixes his wit with wordplay that’s both fun and conscious of overindulging. He takes control of the mic opening his verse saying, “Pump brakes. Pump faked his ass, sundress on my woman, sun baked, she bad,”  You can feel him smirking as he says these opening lines. His masterful wordplay affords him the ability to be clever while cautioning against being careless. “I’m ridin’ shotgun, we prolly got smoke, we prolly got drinks, we prolly got hoes, we prolly not thinkin’, we gots to start thinkin’,” he raps as his verse is coming to an end. There’s still a carefree vibe in the song, Mick is talking about things he does and that other people do too so when he uses “we,” it’s a collective “we” that includes himself – he isn’t preaching as if he’s innocent.

 

So far Mick has released two songs off The Healing Component where he continues to showcase his talent as not just a rapper but a hip hop artist. “Drowning” is the second of the new tracks he’s released and it features Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD. This six minute-long track grooves slowly being pressed forward by a psychedelic hook that finds Jenkins frequently repeating, “I can’t breathe,” the last words Eric Garner, a black man from New York, repeated as police strangled him in 2014. Garner’s death brought more attention to the bothersome trend of racism and police brutality in America. While the song has political undertones (the line, “Won’t we need the litigation,” is also repeated as part of the hook, as a reminder that no indictments were made in the case of Garner’s death – the only litigation was a nearly 6 million dollar out-of-court settlement being reached) Jenkins switches gears often in the song, not allowing himself to be bogged down by the negativity of the subject matter. From the slow-moving hook, to a hard-hitting verse Mick raps in the middle of the song to remind listeners he can still spit fire, to a jazz-infused version of the hook where the song picks its pace up, to the resolution of that haunting hook, you can see a flexible talent at work on this track. When Mick is rapping on this track, he is arguably at his best. Lines like, “I ain’t preaching at you, I don’t touch boys,” where he’s calling out other rappers for being boys instead of men and the Catholic Church for their history of molestation, remind you he is as intelligent as he is clever with an unrivaled ability to turn a phrase. The whole song features references to African American culture and racism as well as Jenkins’ catalog of previously released mixtapes. The theme of water (present already in the title) is reoccurring throughout the track as well as in the music video, in which Mick is featured as a runaway slave paddling down a river. The way Jenkins counterbalances constant transitions musically in the song while continuing to cling to the consciousness and the concept of water so closely associated with him now, makes “Drowning” a rewarding listen. Mick ends his verse in the song emphatically, “Talkin’ revolution, when the waves come they turn feline, I been turnin’ tricks in the coldest part of the deepest water like a sea lion, you could see why.” You don’t have to catch his references to his EP Wave[s] and his mixtape The Water[s] for these lines to be nasty, which encourages new listeners; but people who were already fans can enjoy them at face value and for their underlying references.

 

Going off of Mick Jenkins’ impressive catalog of releases and features, you can expect his debut album to be nothing short of another exceptional release showcasing this Chicago talent. And with how well-received his previous releases have been by critics and fans, The Healing Component (out September 23rd) could see Jenkins gain some major recognition as a hip hop artist. Don’t sleep on Mick Jenkins.