In the summer of 2019, Dave Grohl hinted at the possibility of a second Them Crooked Vultures album. At that point, it had been a whole decade since the supergroup’s debut release, but fans had never quite given up hope of a return. Grohl’s comments only served to fuel the rumour mill and in many ways it’s a pity nothing more materialised, as a brand new work involving John Paul Jones at that time would have outshone all of Jimmy Page’s non-existent efforts to mark Led Zeppelin’s 50th anniversary.
For years, Hüsker Dü fans have desperately wanted a reunion. Much like fellow Minneapolis punks The Replacements, the Hüskers became hugely influential, and all too often to musicians who never actually got to see them live. Obviously, for many Replacements fans, that dream eventually came true, but even at a time when Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were on the road bringing maximum nostalgia, each of the Hüsker Dü members dismissed any chance of a reunion.
The combination of Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones brings together three very talented people. Despite the amount of talent shared between the three men, the debut album from Them Crooked Vultures often sounded like Josh plus side band – a very talented side band, granted, but the end results drew too heavily from Homme’s influences. This could be frustrating since Jones began his career as a master arranger (he’s clearly not had a great influence in arranging most of the Vultures’ songs) and Grohl has proven a decent songwriter over the years.
The second and third Foo Fighters albums (1997’s ‘The Color and The Shape’ and 1999’s ‘There Is Nothing Left To Lose’) really raised the bar for radio-friendly alternative rock, with both releases absolutely loaded with fantastic songs. Across the two albums, Dave Grohl more than proved his well rounded talent. In contrast, the handful of albums which followed were predictable, a bit formulaic and as a result, rather lacklustre. None were awful of course, but there was a strong feeling we’d heard it all before. Even the acoustic second half of ‘In Your Honour’, which seemed like a great idea on paper, in reality, didn’t translate into something which could set the world of acoustic rock alight. Given then that Dave Grohl and company had appeared to have been going through the motions and playing it safe too often, there was little reason to think that their seventh studio album, 2011’s ‘Wasting Light’ would do anything to break the cycle.
However, a few bars into the opening number, something feels different somehow. This may or may not have something to do with Pat Smear’s presence on second guitar, making his first full-time appearance since ‘The Color and The Shape’. Smear’s return is not the album’s only nod to the past either – the disc also boasts a guest performance by Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and was produced by Butch Vig, who had last worked with Grohl on Nirvana’s multi-million selling ‘Nevermind’ back in 1991.
‘Bridge Burning’ opens with some discordant guitars swiftly joined by a crashy drum part, where Taylor Hawkins sounds like he’s channelling Dave Grohl’s 1990s drumming style. After the verse settles in, it’s chock full of the muted string riffs Foo Fighters have incorporated into their signature sound. The noisier parts are counterbalanced by a pre-chorus featuring Grohl in particularly fine voice, before the chorus itself uses a few great harmonies over a simple hook. There’s an energy at play here, the kind you’d hope to find driving most of the great Foo Fighters numbers, which makes it a strong opener. For those looking to the Foo’s for another blast of high octane rock, ‘White Limo’ is also hugely appealing, with a carefree, almost Nirvana-ish edge. The fast-paced riffing and general vibe is a definite throwback to the Foo Fighters’ earliest work, with its speed and vocal distortion recalling both ‘Wattershed’ and ‘Weenie Beenie’. [See the video clip featuring Lemmy!]
With an approach to the verses which sounds a little like early Joe Jackson, ‘Dear Rosemary’ shows another side to the Foo Fighters. The spiky rhythm is complimented by some great playing from everyone concerned, particularly Nate Mandel, whose bass sound has a great presence. The track also features ex- Hüsker Dü /Sugar frontman (and legend) Bob Mould, who contributes guitar and vocals. Clearly the guitars offered by Smear and Chris Shiflett would have been adequate enough, since Mould’s work remains indistinct. When you consider how distinctive Mould’s shrill guitar tone has been, particularly during his Hüsker Dü years, it wouldn’t have been so hard for him to add something similar here, to really make his presence felt. It’s not until the close of the number, when Mould can be heard clearly on second vocal, his contribution is really obvious.
Naturally, there are still moments where the band retreats to the safety of their stadium rock stylings. The weakest of these tracks, ‘These Days’, is a dull retread of something which sounds like it belongs on the Foos’ 2002 outing ‘One By One’. Also with a focus on big riffs and a radio-friendly chorus, ‘Miss The Misery’ features some crisp rhythm guitar work and decent vocals; but despite being extremely well written, it’s a number which could do with a little of the energy that’s in abundance elsewhere. Lead single ‘Rope’ fares a little better, thanks in no small part to a slightly quirky rhythm during the verses and big rock section near the end. Taylor Hawkins’s drum work throughout the number creates enough interest to sustain momentum. Neither ‘Miss The Misery’ or ‘Rope’ are bad enough to skip, but there are better examples of this style in the Foo Fighters’ back catalogue.
Sometimes, though, familiarity isn’t a bad thing, as proved by ‘Arlandria’. With quiet verses full of muted chords, building to a sing-along chorus, it could be described as Foo Fighters by numbers. However, by having a chorus which lodges firmly inside your head after two or three plays, it’s an instant classic. Well constructed with enough oomph to make a decent rocker, yet with a commercial edge that’s meant for radio play, ‘Arlandria’ is one of ‘Wasting Light’s absolute crackers. Almost equally appealing, ‘Back & Forth’ moves almost into power-pop territory on occasion, with a chorus that has a slight Cheap Trick influence. Shiflett’s muted chords may raise a smile, since they sound exactly like those Shiflett used previously on the Me First & The Gimme Gimmes version of The Cars’ ‘Just What I Needed’. On the negative side, the vocals on the pre-chorus seems a little droney, but hang in there, since the harmony-fuelled pop/rock chorus which follows is one of the album’s best.
‘I Should’ve Known’ is a slow number which presents the band in a more reflective mood. Grohl’s vocals are heavily filtered, but this is balanced by the clear quality of Shiflett’s guitar. Krist Novoselic’s guest performances on bass and accordion seem, at first, understated. To begin with, his bass part appears particularly pedestrian, but it’s deliberately misleading… Near the track’s end once everyone starts to rock out, the bass is full of anger; a fuzzy sound partly recalling Novoselic’s Pixies-inspired style from way back when. The bass work is definitely the high point here.
Granted, ‘Wasting Light’ is an album which brings few musical surprises, but it captures Grohl and company on good form, often playing with a renewed sense of vigour. Since it features a handful of terrific numbers and little in the way of filler, it’s a decent addition to the band’s catalogue. It still doesn’t quite live up to those standards set by the early albums, but it certainly comes close.
The idea of Josh Homme forming a supergroup with John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl, on paper at least, is a very exciting concept. Imagine the energy of Grohl’s many previous works colliding with a wedge of Zeppelin fuelled goodness! Surely that means that Them Crooked Vultures should have some big appeal?
And it does. …But only really to fans of Joshua Homme and particularly his band Queens of The Stone Age. Aside from an occasional obvious backing vocal from Dave Grohl and an occasional musical flourish (but seldom more) from Jones, a lot of Them Crooked Vultures’ material feels indistinguishable from Homme’s main band.
If viewed as the work of a supergroup, most of the album is unremarkable. Homme is clearly de facto band leader and most of the music takes his usual punchy but sludgy approach. Fine if you like Queens of the Stone Age, but of little interest to other people. ‘No One Loves Me & Neither Do I’ has a fantastic riff, but fails to back it up with a memorable hook. Lead single ‘New Fang’ has a decent drum groove, with stops on the what sounds like it ought to be a pre-chorus, but again there’s nothing too memorable about it. ‘Elephants’ is rather cumbersome and drags on far too long at nearly seven minutes (a common criticism of at least half of Homme’s work), despite a decent intro riff.
‘Scumbag Blues’, a Cream style power trio workout, is one of the only times that the potential behind Them Crooked Vultures can be seen. It’s also the first time Jones’s keyboard work makes an obvious appearance. Here, he occasionally breaks into some very welcome ‘Trampled Underfoot’ styled clavinet work. Although ‘Bandoliers’ features an old-style mellotron, it’s all but buried below the drums. Such a pity that Jones’s distinctive keyboard work (a la ‘No Quarter’, ‘Trampled Underfoot’ and ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’) doesn’t have much place in Them Crooked Vultures. It could be argued that Jones’s keyboard is the key to ‘Interlude With Ludes’, but he’s not playing much of anything resembling a tune and the whole thing is a mess.
Since Jones would be a hero to both Homme and Grohl, it seems odd that his contributions to Them Crooked Vultures would be so underwhelming. He’s credited as playing bass, keyboards, keytar, piano, slide guitar and mandolin, but most of these get lost under Josh Homme’s trademark bluster. Aside from occasional keyboards, most of his clearly audible work is restricted to the bass. While his bass playing is solid, there are a number of Homme’s chums who could have filled the bass player’s spot as easily.
Some of the material here sounds solid, but little of it makes any lasting impact. Some good riffs for sure, but a repetitive sound and lack of hooks makes ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ a wasted opportunity, considering the musicians involved. Some of this material would’ve made a decent Queens of The Stone Age album, but if viewed as more than that, it’s one of the biggest musical disappointments of 2009.