A project with the bonafides of Them Crooked Vultures could not possibly live up to its potential audience’s expectations. The idea of Dave Grohl returning to his rightful place behind a drum kit alone is enough to work up a considerable amount of public excitement. And even though Queens of the Stone Age have been somewhat in the woods lately, Josh Homme remains a supernaturally agile guitarist. Putting Grohl and Homme together (again) is bound to produce tremendous results; tossing in John Paul Jones to boot just seems unfair. So it would seem that the ingredients are all in place for the sort of super-charged masterpiece that comes along once a decade (the last one I can think of is Homme and Grohl’s last proper collaboration, Queens of the Stone Age’s 2002 opus, Songs for the Deaf). At the very least, Them Crooked Vultures should be a showcase for breathtaking musicianship.
Disappointingly, Them Crooked Vultures frequently turns out to be nothing more than the sum of its parts. At its worst, Them Crooked Vultures is everything you would expect to happen when you combine the bassist from Led Zeppelin with Nirvana’s drummer and Queens of the Stone Age’s front man/guitarist. Fortunately, that combination at its worst is still a dizzyingly powerful thing.
First and foremost, Them Crooked Vultures is about shredding in the best possible way. Devastating riffs and cataclysmic drum fills abound, but the true appeal of Them Crooked Vultures is when the instruments lock into each other. “Gunman” perfectly exemplifies this, built around, frankly, the sickest groove you’re likely to hear all year. Everyone is rightly excited about John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl’s return to the instruments that made them famous, but Them Crooked Vulture’s not-so-secret weapon is Homme’s guitar. There are plenty of talented heavy guitarists, but Homme has always differentiated himself by being one of the few hard rock players with hips. Them Crooked Vultures could bludgeon you all day with breakneck musicianship, but it would grow tiring quickly without a little bit of swing.
Yet Homme the vocalist is largely lifeless, understandably content to let the band’s instrumental dexterity do most of the heavy lifting. With the exception of his performance on the hooky “New Fang,” Homme turns in mostly perfunctory vocal work, ostensibly because he’s desperate to return to his guitar. Lyrically, we know not to expect anything from Homme that strays from his invariable theme of “I’m a badass and a sexual dynamo,” but he usually offered some spirited singing to match. It’s hard to blame him: he’s leading a pair of the most respected musicians in the history of rock ‘n roll. It’s easy to see how the microphone could seem like a distraction.
So we get songs like “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I,” perpetuating its fairly middling blues-rock until Homme’s voice cuts out and the song truly takes off. The schizophrenically paced “Elephant” is another instrumentally excellent cut, but there’s little vocally to pull the listener in. The result of the persistent problem is an album that consistently wows but rarely engages the audience. That’s still enough to warrant repeated listens, but after Them Crooked Vultures is through kicking your ass around the room, you won’t remember what happened or why.