Songs for the Deaf. Queens of the Stone Age.
2002, Interscope. Producer: Josh Homme, Adam Kasper, Eric Valentine.
IN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, pounding rock and mellow, moody offerings plus everything in between are found on this excellent album. The musicianship is top-notch, featuring Nirvana/Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums and Josh Homme’s terrifically distinctive guitar work. Drums, guitar, melody, diversity – my list’s usual suspects – are once again featured here.
Brains are funny. They’re not “funny Ha Ha,” but they’re more “funny weird” [i.e. Not funny at all]. The brain is the most important organ in the body, beating out the heart and lungs on the basis of the fact that while there is something called a “Heart and Lung Machine,” that takes over for the heart and lung when needed, there isn’t a comparable Brain Machine. (I said “Comparable,” so this sweet device, retailing for $25, doesn’t count.) When the brain stops working, that’s the end.
The brain stands alone atop the hierarchy of organs in higher organisms because it is the one organ that is so complex, that functions so mysteriously, that nobody knows for sure what all it does, how it does what it does, or, especially, what its potential could be.
Consider for a moment how well we understand other organs. The heart, for example, has a straightforward purpose and a manner of operation, and both can be summed up pretty easily. Purpose: get blood through the body. Manner of Operation: contract and release in rhythmic pattern. The same can be said for the lungs, even though it’s more complex: Purpose: bring oxygen into the body and put it into the blood. Manner of Operation: diaphragm movement causes suction, oxygen moves in and gets to bloodstream through tiny capillaries1.
Those organs were pretty simple, I did them from memory2. How about if I pick an organ I don’t know much about, google3 around a little bit and try to summarize it. Pancreas. Purpose: produce and release enzymes to help digest foods. Okay, that was easy enough. Manner of Operation: uh, okay. This gets just a little bit more complex. Well, a lot more complex. But basically, some chemicals are released in the gut in response to what we’ve eaten, and those chemicals tell the pancreas to squirt some pancreatic juice4 into the intestines. So, it’s pretty complex, but it’s not hard to understand. And all vertebrates have a pancreas, and they all do pretty much the same thing, so it’s a pretty routine function.
Okay, now let’s think about how the brain works. Guess what!! You already are, just from reading that first sentence! In fact, you were probably thinking about brains and how they work since you first saw that goofy brain with Groucho nose and glasses, above. Your brain is like that – doing shit you’re not even aware of all the time, even while you sleep. Your brain does so much stuff that we still don’t know what all it does. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that you are your brain.
If that’s the case, then when we go through our two-step “Purpose” and “Manner of Operation” process to describe organ function, it’s complicated right off the bat. Purpose: well, how about EVERYTHING. Manner of Operation: let’s try something here. Imagine a large painting of an orange hanging in a museum, the only painting on this particular wall, and that as you stand there looking at it, the color starts to ooze outward until the shape of the fruit is no longer recognizable. You calculate that the fruit had taken up about 60% of the canvas before it disappeared into what is now simply an orange-colored canvas. That orange color continues to spread off the canvas and soon takes up an entire wall, and when it takes up the entire wall, the wall begins to vibrate and then hum. As you back up a few steps, that hum turns into a woman’s voice singing The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun,” but the voice is out of tune, and as the wall sings, it dislodges itself from the surrounding building and begins a slow, soundless, controlled collapse. And as it collapses you watch it retract into an actual orange which plops onto the floor in the middle of the museum where the wall used to be. You walk over to it and pick it up and sniff it, and it smells like an orange, and you peel and eat it and it tastes delicious. And now imagine yourself doing that again when you’re 90.
Okay, how the #*$%@!! did your brain just do that?! Visualize the impossible? Conjure an orange smell? Hear a song – out of tune?! Your brain did that without breaking a sweat! Hearts pump, lungs inflate, pancreases respond to chemical levels … But what did your brain just do? Are there elves living within your ears that get a message from a surly witch living in one of those folds in your brain, and do the elves pass pictures behind your eyes, and smells behind your nose, and songs inside your head? That sounds as plausible to me as any other explanation!
Humans have known about the brain for a long time, and for most of that time people – besides me – have understood that elves weren’t involved in the brain’s function. It’s hard for a simpleton like me to understand, but the fact is that the brain does everything it does through chemicals and electrons and energy, just like every other organ, and scientists are learning more about the brain every day. To better understand brain function, research is often carried out on people whose brains do things out of the ordinary, often due to injury or illness. Like the woman who developed extreme empathy after brain surgery; or the woman who has no fear; or the person who sees beards on everyone5. (If you’re interested in reading about weird stuff like this, I suggest the Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.)
This makes me wonder: has anyone ever studied someone with a brain that associates music with every memory of their entire life? Sure, it’s not as debilitating as Aboulomania or as strange as Foreign Accent Syndrome, but it could indicate some sort of brain malfunction, couldn’t it?
Consider the following Case Study. Subject: A forty-nine year old white American male, with a history of good health, married, father to two teen-aged children. Symptomatic Episode: In late 2002, subject was thirty-five years old and had been married for six years to a woman, J., and had one four-year old son. J’s family included relatives living in Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands, and frequently mentioned as one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. The grandmother of J., after a long and fulfilling life, fell ill and died. Because the grandmother spent winters in Maui with her grown children, the family planned a ceremony to be held on the island to commemorate her long life and spread some of her ashes.
The Subject flew with his wife and child to Maui in December, 2002, for a week of billeting with relatives, honoring the family matriarch, and general island vacation fun6. Subject and his immediate family attended several relatives’ gatherings, including trips to the beach, an excursion to Mount Haleakala, a whale watch, a Christmas/Hannukah gift exchange, and several rousing games of Sardines with the many children in attendance. Subject and his immediate family also spent several hours together exploring the island, driving to Hana, and generally experiencing the natural splendor that is Maui.
Brain Affliction: As described above, the subject spent a week in Maui, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with his closest loved-ones and extended family celebrating the life of an important person recently passed, and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events with them. However, when asked to reflect on this time, the strongest persistent memory of this trip continues to be (as stated in the Subject’s words) “That trip was the first time I heard the song “No One Knows,” by Queens of The Stone Age.”
Discussion: The Subject’s brain appears to be otherwise normal, although certain functions that were tested did land on the extreme end of the scale. For example, appreciation for both old Three Stooges short films and Bugs Bunny episodes (including all of the associated Warner Brothers cartoons7) was extremely high so as to be noteworthy. Subject is also extraordinarily handsome, which doesn’t factor into this research but really must be noted. The subject’s constant internal (mental) and external (verbal) references to rock music and, to a lesser extent, music such as jazz, show tunes, Tin Pan Alley and only the most well-known classical pieces, does not appear to interfere with his life. He has consistently been employed in professional occupations, has established meaningful, caring and reciprocated relationships with others, and generally moves through his life experiencing joy and happiness. While his focus on music is strange to others, bordering on alarming8, it does not appear to have hindered him. Others may not understand why a song by a rock band would appear to sit atop a hierarchy of memories of time spent with family on a so-called “Paradise on Earth,” but for the unafflicted masses the best way of processing this information is to just listen to that goddamn song and tell me it’s not un-fucking-believable.
I’d say the researcher above is stretching things a bit – I wouldn’t necessarily say that hearing “No One Knows” sits “atop a hierarchy of memories” from Maui. But it is true that I clearly remember lying on the couch of the guest apartment we stayed in, relaxing in between once-in-a-lifetime events by watching MTV9, when the following song showed up.
I love everything about this song. I love the four introductory guitar notes at the beginning, and I love the riff that carries the introduction and the harmonics at 0:13 that signal the beginning of the verse, and the little run at 0:56 that signals the beginning of the chorus. I love singer/guitarist Josh Homme’s singing, and the whispered voice that doubles the vocals periodically throughout the song. I particularly love the drumming by Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who joined the band for this album and tour then left to continue leading his main band, Foo Fighters. I am particularly blown away by his fills during the choruses – for example, from 1:10 – 1:30, and again from 2:35 – 2:58. I love the background vocals beginning at 1:40. I love Nick Oliveri’s direct and pulsing bass throughout. I love the raucous instrumental break, from 2:59 – 3:14, and how it leads into a bass guitar interlude for 5 seconds, giving way to a very unique, Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo from Homme atop furious Grohl drumming for 15 seconds, and then back to Oliveri’s bass pulse at 3:38, and a final verse at 3:47 to a confident final four notes. Homme’s lyrics are about worshiping someone from afar, but don’t seem too creepy. It is one of my favorite rock songs of all time. I’m sure that there are parts of the Maui vacation that I can remember in just as great detail.
I went out and bought the CD immediately after returning from our trip. Songs For The Deaf is sort of a concept album, put together to mimic the experience of changing the radio dial on a long drive through the desert. The first song, “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire,” begins with a car starting and radio commercials blaring. Between songs, DJs from a variety of phony radios stations (including “KRDL,” “KLONE,” and “Banning College Radio”) introduce the next cut. At first listen, I was disappointed by the rest of the songs. I didn’t play it much. But sometime in the mid-2000s I began pulling it out of my CD case more frequently, listening to it a lot in the lab I worked in at the time. The songs are strange but sound cool. There’s a diversity of styles, and all the musicians are talented. Plus it’s a loud rock record, with aggression and power, and records like that – while not always appropriate in every situation – sound particularly awesome when the time is right.
I think the next song that really connected with me was the album’s second single, “Go With The Flow.”
This is a driving, straight-ahead rocker with none of the subtlety or instrumental interplay found on “No One Knows.” But it does have a terrific melody, and a great solo guitar throughout – played by guest artist Brendon McNichol. (Drums are provided by Gene Trautmann, not Grohl on this song.) The lyrics seem to be about the end of a relationship, and Homme’s quiet yet intense voice handles them perfectly.
The band goes back and forth between simple, driving songs and more complex, almost orchestral-sounding pieces – such as “A Song For The Dead.”
This one starts with a cool introduction, including nasty-good fills from Grohl. It sounds like it’s going to be all hellbent fury, but after a minute the song becomes slow and groove-heavy, featuring excellent guitar fills every two measures from Homme. Josh Homme, the leader of Queens of the Stone Age (aka QOTSA), is a multi-instrumentalist and an interesting guy. He’s also the creative force behind the band Eagles of Death Metal, sadly famous for being onstage during a terrorist attack in Paris in late 2015 (although Homme wasn’t onstage, as he typically doesn’t tour with that band). He’s got a guitar style all his own that he claims is partly due to his training as a Polka guitarist for the first several years of his tutelage on the instrument. He’s strongly featured on this one, and he’s free to play because he gave up vocal duties to Mark Lanegan, a sometime member of QOTSA who is mostly famous for his Seattle grunge roots with the band The Screaming Trees. It’s a song about driving your car to forget your problems, and like most of the songs on the album, it sounds great loud while you’re going really fast! Homme’s guitar solo from 2:55 to 3:38 is weird and sounds like no one else.
Lanegan also provides lead vocals on the unusual but very cool “Hangin’ Tree.”
I’ve said it several times before, but I always love songs in unusual time signatures, and this one is set to a brisk 5/4 beat. Grohl’s drums are fantastic, as is – once again – Homme’s guitar. But what I love most are Lanegan’s vocals, giving the sparse lyrics a sinister feel that is augmented by the spooky backing vocalizations. The song breaks into 4/4 for the guitar solo at 2:15, then falls right back to the 5/4 groove.
Many of the songs are unusual, but a few are straight-ahead rock songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical rock record – although even these are QOTSA-fied. For example, “Another Love Song,” sung by bassist Oliveri, would sound right at home on most any 60s pop album. Kind of.
You can almost see the Laugh-In go-go dancers dance while the song plays. Almost. As with most songs on the album, it features cool backing vocals and a great guitar solo. And the bridge, from 1:55 – 2:23, is cool. Oliveri handles the break-up lyrics with ease. He also sings another “normal-sounding” song “I’m Gonna Leave You,” another break up song with a nifty-yet-simple bass line and a great break and guitar solo around 1:54.
The album has 14 songs, and there isn’t really a loser in the bunch10. There’s the arena-rock-style stomper, “Do It Again,” with it’s chant-along “Hey!” The return to the slow-groove of “God Is In The Radio,” another Lanegan-sung song that frees up Homme to range freely on guitar. The noisey-yet-mellow “Sky Is Fallin’” is a finely crafted song with cool harmonies and more great Grohl drumming. The band, and Homme in particular, goes a bit Middle Eastern in “A Song For The Deaf.” As I wrote earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the album when I first bought it, but it really grew on me. One song in particular that I found myself loving, much to my surprise, is the aggressive machine-gun beast that is “First It Giveth.”
I like the harmony and backing vocals of the song, and once again, Grohl’s drumming stands out. The video shows a band on the verge of careening out of control, which accurately reflects the song. By the end, the guitars almost sound out of tune. It’s a song that Homme has said is about the effect of drugs on creativity and music.
The final song may be the most interesting of all. “Mosquito Song” opens with a folky acoustic guitar riff that almost sounds lifted from an early 70s Traffic or Led Zeppelin song. The lyrics seem to explain that we are all just a feast for the insects of the world, and the softly distorted voice of Homme sounds perfectly creepy singing them. As the song builds, an accordion joins him, then a piano and violin, then horns and tympani and military drums. It’s a great song, and a mellow way to end the record after so much aggression, power and noise.
Okay, so look – Songs For The Deaf is NOT the most memorable part of my trip to Maui. I swear! I look at pictures from that trip and I’m right back on that island paradise: snorkeling with little fish (that tried to eat my chest hair!), drinking fresh coconut juice at a roadside stand at the insistence of my kid (who took one sip and refused to drink any more!), seeing double and triple rainbows almost everywhere we looked! And also sharing memories of a wonderful woman in her favorite spot on the island: her garden. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I’m so happy I was able to go. But my brain is what it is – and my brain can’t help but remember that song that I heard … I don’t know how, or why, brains do what they do. And maybe mine is malfunctioning. But I don’t want to be cured. I’m happy that mine can remember Maui AND associate it with great music.
“You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire”
“No One Knows”
“First It Giveth”
“A Song For The Dead”
“The Sky Is Fallin”
“Go With The Flow”
“Gonna Leave You”
“Do It Again”
“God Is In The Radio”
“Another Love Song”
“A Song For The Deaf”