POP/ROCK

Queens of the Stone Age, “Villains” (Matador)

After blasting out five albums in the first nine years of Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme has backed off in the last decade in a considered effort to make the band newly relevant to not just his fans but to himself. On only the band’s second album since 2007, Homme splices together rock swagger, dance swing, vocal androgyny and art-band weirdness into songs that can’t be easily pinned down.

The renewal project actually began on the Queens’ 2013 album, “Like Clockwork,” in which Homme explored some of the more vulnerable, personal and disquietingly fragile aspects of his songwriting in collaboration with producer James Lavelle, the mastermind of U.K. electronic innovators Unkle. With “Villains,” Homme enlists another unlikely sidekick from the U.K., Mark Ronson, whose production credits include Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars.

Though Ronson’s presence may alarm Queens fans, the producer merely amplifies some of the less overtly rock elements that already exist in the Queens sound. Sure, there are plenty of anvil guitar chords still to be heard, but the hip-swaying rhythms and space-oddity atmospherics get equal time.

Cartoon monsters populate “Villains” — there are at least four name-checked in “Un-Reborn Again” alone. But the real monsters are ganging up inside Homme’s imagination — one rave-up is aptly titled “Head Like a Haunted House.” The music aims to loosen their grip. The conflict comes into immediate focus on the opening “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” with its sonic-dungeon intro giving way to thundering drums.

A few tracks work on a more straight-ahead plane: “The Way You Used to Do” busts loose with hand claps and a swinging guitar, the dance floor as sanctuary. “Fortress” reclaims some of the troubled tenderness that Homme explored on previous Queens album. These songs serve an important purpose by presenting the Queens in a less complicated, more accessible light, a palate cleanser of sorts between the more ambitious tracks.

Most of the rest is more complex with surprise-around-every-corner arrangements and Dean Fertita’s extraterrestrial keyboards, yet the stellar rhythm section anchored by drummer Jon Theodore ensures that things still rock. An undeniable current is Homme’s recent work on Iggy Pop’s excellent 2016 album, “Post Pop Depression.” Like that album’s references to Pop’s infamous Berlin period with David Bowie, Homme underlines that era’s bold intersection of glam rock and electronic disco.

“Domesticated Animals” builds herky-jerky momentum with sci-fi keyboards and bodacious bass that echo Pop’s Bowie-produced album “The Idiot.” “Un-Reborn Again” taps T Rex’s “Telegram Sam” while “Hideaway” channels the disorienting comedown of Bowie’s “Scary Monsters.”

The album winds down with two of its finest moments. “The Evil Has Landed” pits Homme’s Led Zeppelin-like guitar riff against Theodore’s booming cymbal-free drums to create an unlikely dance rocker with a zonked-out solo and a double-time finish. “Villains of Circumstance” is an appropriately off-kilter capper to an album that makes a virtue of its uneasiness, its unwillingness to settle down. Homme turns his restlessness into a virtue.

GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune

 

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