Queens of the Stone Age

Like Clockwork


Four stars

Forget Robert Johnson for a moment. Josh Homme is the one who went down to the crossroads and traded his soul to the devil in return for an unflagging ability to craft albums that know no rival in their realm.

How else can one explain Homme’s ability to conjure riffs that seem at once familiar and new, and then attach them to songs that somehow flirt with several genres at once? How, after more than two decades in the business, has Homme avoided releasing a single dud of an album, whether fronting Kyuss, the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, or with his main squeeze, Queens of the Stone Age?

OK, so maybe the dark lord is in no way involved in this. That said, a sinister darkness does hang above “Like Clockwork” in the form of a densely layered dinginess that is the very definition of the stoner-rock sound. Homme owns this stuff, and his flair for the dramatic song narrative never fails him here. The song titles offer a hint at the sense of impending doom – or is it merely sexy and alluring danger? – at the heart of “Clockwork’s” vision: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” “My God is the Sun,” “If I Had A Tail,” “Fair Weather Friends,” “Keep Your Eyes Peeled.”

Listening to “Clockwork” makes one aware of the clock’s incessant ticking, and summons the image of the listener riding a horse across a brutal landscape with a posse of vigilante madmen hot on your heels, noose in hand and murder in mind. It’s heavy, it’s dense, it’s a little bit scary, and it probably won’t leave without a fight once you let it cross your doorstep.

But Homme is a master of melody, too, and his voice is actually quite beautiful, a resonant tenor that can break easily into sturdy falsetto, and is often layered in harmonies that suggest more than a passing familiarity with the early work of Queen, or possibly even Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” It’s the contrast between the swinging sledgehammer power of the rhythm section, the dizzying deviousness of Homme’s guitar riffs, and the dramatic intensity and deep musicality evident in his singing that makes QOTSA a one-of-a-kind band.

There are more than a few special guests among the album’s credits, but don’t worry, this isn’t some cameo-crazy modern hip-hop album. Dave Grohl on drums, Elton John on piano and vocals, Trent Reznor, Brody Dalle, Mark Lenegan and Alain Johannes on vocals – all add something significant to the music, which in the end, sounds like no one else but Queens of the Stone Age. That’s a testament to the strength of Homme’s vision. However he may have acquired that vision.

– Jeff Miers


George Benson

Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole


3½ stars

You’d be hard put to find one musician’s tribute to another that’s more authentic than this one.

You want proof? Try its first cut – an 8-year-old “Little George Benson” in 1951 recording, as a contest prize, Nat “King” Cole’s “Mona Lisa” in a Pittsburgh recording studio. “Lil’ George” gives you about as much Cole as a quavery prepubescent boy was capable of.

And then, mirabile dictu, what happens from the singer/guitarist so clearly beholden, are some cuts where Benson’s phrasing and even tone quality are so much from Cole’s side of the street that you’d swear, for 20 or so seconds at a time, you’re hearing a fresh, previously unheard alternate take of Cole classics.

But no, it’s Benson, the first-rate virtuoso jazz guitarist who, just like jazz piano virtuoso Cole, became a commercial pop singer with popularity so immense that people virtually forgot instantly how much of a great jazz virtuoso he once was.

So, sure, Benson records vocal duets with Judith Hill and Tony Award-winning Broadway star Idina Menzel, but just to make sure which side of the street he began on (and still feels at home on), Wynton Marsalis is along to back him up on “Unforgettable.” (And, as long as he was in the neighborhood, why not have percussionist Sheila E. around for some fun?)

Any serious attempt at the Cole songbook from a great singer is a pleasure. But when you’ve got a literal lifetime of so much devotion to and influence by Cole, there’s something singular in 2013 about hearing Benson sing the likes of “Unforgettable,” “Walking My Baby Back Home,” “Route 66” and “When I Fall in Love.”

No, there isn’t enough guitar burn from Benson for some of us, but the arrangements are gorgeous updated Cole. And for its finale you’ve got Benson singing Nelson Riddle’s original arrangement of that first Cole hit that he recorded at the ripe old age of 8 – “Mona Lisa.”

Not just a terrific disc but a terrific pop jazz occasion.

– Jeff Simon


Bill Frisell

Big Sur


2½ stars

Take your pick of what genre to call this: Chamber country? Avant barn dance? Conservatory pastorale?

Whatever it is, there’s much beauty here in a musical mode that Bill Frisell has made us familiar with for a long time.

What you’ll have trouble hearing is what this music has in common with Big Sur other than the name of the quintet playing it. Big Sur is the Monterrey Peninsula community that seems to have inspired it, but the magnificent seascapes and forests of Big Sur don’t sound at all like these punctiliously country fantasias. In their major scale simplicity, they’re formal string band cousins of Pat Metheny’s music (or, especially, Frisell’s own “Nashville”). But from a sonority, that’s about midway between string quintet and church social.

The great jazz cellist Hank Roberts is the cellist of the Big Sur Quintet. Jenny Scheinman is the violinist, Eyvind King is the violist and Rudy Royston is the rockish drummer.

Heavier on sonic poetry than adrenaline, it certainly has its moments of stomp and thrum, but in its proper deportment, it doesn’t give us much from Frisell that we haven’t heard before on some of the greatest and least expected guitar fusion discs in our jazz era (“Nashville”).

All Frisell music is worthwhile, but this kind of post-conservatory fusion music (slo-mo Oregon) often seems more decorative than profound or creative.

– J.S.


Anagnoson & Kinton

Piano Titans

[Opening Day]

3 stars

Bravi to Anagnoson and Kinton for keeping alive the tradition of the piano duo. The piano titans in the title do not vaingloriously refer to the two of them, but to the composers represented: Muzio Clementi, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert.

OK, Schubert was far from a virtuoso, but he created some mighty challenging pieces for piano. The Clementi is charming and it is interesting to listen to his music and ask yourself what keeps it from being equal to Mozart or Beethoven. It doesn’t stir you in the same way. But it’s better than you might imagine.

Anagnoson and Kinton play the two Clementi sonatas with 18th century grace, presenting Clementi as one of the links between the Classical and Romantic eras. Three Beethoven marches, Op. 45, are new to me. It’s charming to hear Beethoven not trying be great, filling his marches with military fanfares and rhythms and throwing in wit on the side.

Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, in contrast, is a great human achievement and Anagnoson and Kinton take an unflinching approach to it. The down side to its inclusion here is that it makes everything before it sound trite.

– Mary Kunz Goldman