KING QUEEN JOSH HOMME RESSURECTS DESERT SESSIONS FOR VOLUMES 11 AND 12

The return of Desert Sessions features a cast of characters rival to the Wacky Racers. Photo courtesy Desert Sessions Facebook page

I took this summer off to do some more repairs/renovations around my house. This was messy stuff, and I like to have music playing when I do work like this as I am often by myself so it keeps me from going nuts. So I tend to pick the long stuff, or stuff I have made into long play lists.

Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions fits that bill. Each volume is equivalent to one album. So volumes One and Two came out together as one release, so on all the way up to the last, volumes Nine and Ten. Each volume featured famous guests and residents at the studio the series is named after, Rancho De La Luna in the Palm Desert, CA area. For the first volumes, the guests were people who were either recording in Rancho, or were friends of project pioneer Homme. But what a rich pool to pick from, bands like Kyuss, Fatso Jetson, and many of these players would also go on to form Queens Of The Stone Age.

Over time the guest list expanded exponentially, drawing in people like Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, and P.J. Harvey. The Desert Sessions provides scouting for new members of QOTSA, as the lineup often mutated until the most recent lineup formed and has remained consistent to this day. This lineup may experience shakeup after Homme’s announcement that the two-year long tour for the disappointing album Viliains proved to be too much for the health and well-being addled Homme. Near death experiences, health scares, losses of close friends and near misses of very close friends at the hands of international terrorists can take a toll on a man. He was recently quoted in the online edition of NME that he wouldn’t mind if QOTSA were a touch smaller, in terms of audience size, reach, etc.

I see this as fulfillment of my expectation that working with Mark Ronson would damage QOTSA in some way. They’d either get too commercial, or too popular, and I totally get where Homme is coming from. I have had some really bad experiences in a couple of QOTSA Facebook groups. But I shouldn’t saddle QOTSA fans with that distinction exclusively, animosity exists in pretty much all of the Facebook fan groups regardless of the artist. With the possible exception of the Mark Mulcahy/Miracle Legion group.

In order for Homme to clear his head of all the Ronson-generated nonsense, he retreated to the desert to collect some hefty names for the most recent edition of the sessions, that being Desert Sessions Vol. 11 & 12. But before we get into those names, let’s further examine what the Desert Sessions are:

Rancho De La Luna is an analog recording studio in Palm Desert CA where Homme hosts various musicians, some of similar genre, some totally outside the frame that they shock to an extent. These musicians are thrown into a room with a recorder running and they put together songs and that’s the basis of ten albums so far. The earlier Sessions albums had several demo versions of QOTSA songs, “Avon”, “Monsters In The Parasol”, “Wanna Make It Wit Chu”, and a few others have origins on Desert Sessions albums. These early albums had tracks that would never have seen the light of day otherwise. “Piano Bench Breaks” is one, Check it out here:

Nowhere else will you hear Homme behind the scene as well as you get with the Sessions.

But it’s not all silly shit. Some tracks that may not have seen the light of day just plain old rock. Yeah they might have silly titles (“Polly Wants A Crack Rock”), but the music is heavy, hard and punchy. I did manage to hear the first release from the new Sessions, the Mike Kerr vocal-lead “Crucifire” and my initial reaction is that it sounds more sterile than previous Sessions albums. But more on that later. As long as I am bringing up Kerr, I may as well list the players featured on the new Volumes 11 & 12.

Of course there is Homme, pretty much your ringleader in all this. Kerr is from Royal Blood. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Les Claypool of Oysterhead. Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters. Matt Berry also has a gig as a comedian. Carla Azar from Autolux. Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint. Matt Sweeney who some may know from the Iggy Pop Post Pop Depression tour band, and is Homme’s primary cohort in most of these songs. But the most mysterious name included in this round of the Sessions is that of Toornst Hulpft. We’ll get to that mystery a little later on as well.

Volume 11 is titled Arrivederci Despair. On the unboxing, I found a shortage of material. The previous track lists had around 10+ tracks. Now mind you, the releases in my collection do have a few bonus tracks. Things that, well, it wouldn’t surprise me if these things were omitted from vinyl releases. But overall, this Sessions is shorter, and another fear I had was that, again, based on that early preview of “Crucifier”, this Sessions was going to be more polished, more commercial. And that there would not be any “Piano Bench Breaking” or “Winners” or “Interpretive Reading”, so on.

Perhaps we’d better check this shit out…

Arrivederci Despair, the first of this two-volume edition. All Desert Session releases are two volumes each. Photo courtesy Google

Volume 11, Arrivederci Despair starts off with “Move Together” featuring lyrics by Gibbons, music by Homme, Sweeney, Azar, Mozgawa and Claypool. Now all of the previous Sessions albums had their unique features. This one starts off with a beat box style drum machine and Gibbons lonesome vocal. If you are in the other room, or not paying attention, you might think that falsetto belonged to Homme. But it is actually cigarettes, whiskey and grit vocalist Gibbons. It’s rumored he underwent some corrective surgery on his throat and vocal chord area. Seems to have done him well as his falsetto and that ‘boom-ch-ch-boom’ drum machine fill the speakers.

It’s all you get through the first verse and chorus. But when instruments come in after the drum and synth build up, there is only an added 16th note of percussion added for the most part, until the break stop into the second chorus.

Then all hell breaks loose in a solo and full, loud band. The drums are arranged to sound very marching band. The bass is up front and full tone on this track…

Maybe we should talk about the bass. It recently came to light that, Homme had wanted to include the late Lemmy Kilmeister in the Sessions. To the point where, when Homme showed up at Killmesiter’s funeral in 2015, all kinds of speculation started. That speculation Homme later put to rest in various media outlets for the promotion of Volumes 11 & 12, admitting that he had fully intended to include Kilmesiter in these sessions, but Lemmy had passed during the initial discussions. This may have contributed to some of the delay in putting out these recordings.

When everything builds as loud and to the highest point, a chime signals the end for everything but the drone drums and some lead guitar feedback.

While you hear names like Claypool and Shears, you can rest assured that guitars are front and center and foremost on everyone’s mind there in the desert… In fact, in the liner notes, the performers credits (who played what) is filled with inside jokes, bad puns, and complicated guitar panning layout instructions. You’ll get your guitar.

Once our feedback lets Gibbons voice take over again, the instruments remain slight until some multi-note stabs punctuate the third verse lyrics with explosiveness. After some bass up-slides, the track builds into a direction you would not expect after some retro-techno like we just heard. They actually take off into a soul style with lush arrangements and vocals.

Yow!

Then it falls into a more rigid rock structure with Homme’s echoed, stinging guitar solo with high-pitched backing vocals keeping the mood up to the psycho-techno-marching-band-ending through the fade out.

That’s right, from Mr. “Legs” himself, something psycho-funk-a-delic!

As a further assurance that I had made the right call with investing in Desert Sessions Vol. 11 & 12, my worries that things wouldn’t be all weird like the earlier volumes was quickly assuaged when at the end of the marching band fade out, a bottle is thrown on the ground and feet are heard walking away. More silliness from the Sessions!

Some manic EQ-shifted guitar opens “Noses In Roses, Forever” which has words by Homme, music by Homme and Sweeney and a classic QOTSA swagger, that might be a leftover from a QOTSA album but has lyrics that allude to this being the title track for this volume. More over-driven lead romps over the trouncing track to a divebomb that heads to a sort of Bo-Diddley sounding break. I had mentioned the instrument credits had some funky descriptions, well for this track, the first of the ‘Bo Diddley Lead Guitar, Harmony Guitar, Lead Harmony Guitar, etc.’, instrument descriptive makes an appearance. So it only stands to reason this will be a frequently used descriptive.

Hang on, it gets better…

More guitars build in for some stellar interplay, to the hold note into a psychedelic break, sounding like Kyuss revisited. Until they fake stop for a few seconds into the third verse. The rhythm track has extra riffs added and the overall beats of the rhythm track instruments are big! Into the chorus after the third break, we get all experiemental and the sound breaks down into a filter with a wah-wah into a reverb, but it’s so far up front in the mix, it’s all most as if it’s used as a special effect to annoy you. Nearing fingers on a chalkboard realm, especially when some of the wah-verb notes don’t play through.

The next break sounds like something that was too repetitive from Era Vulgaris so he recycled it here. Complete with falsetto vocal through the EQ Filter Distortion. “I’m Designer” from that album comes to mind as far as what it reminds me of.

They still rock the track out. But after that break, a Gibbons reverse solo leads the full sonic spectrum band right to the notes leading to a synth break that leads directly into the marching beat of “Far East For The Trees”, an instrumental by Homme, Azar, Claypool and Mozgawa. This starts with some sturdy percussion lines by Azar (played on children’s instruments, how very Residents of her!) and fleshes out with some acoustic guitar. But this has a familiar sheeny of its own. Like this could have been off any of the earlier Sessions.

This has admittedly foriegn influences. Almost like it might be a distant tribute to a lost member of previous sessions, Johanne’s wife Natasha Schneider who was of Russian descent and passed in 2009.

This track is very organic with the exception of that synth we mentioned at the beginning of this/end of the last track. Otherwise, it does sound very Far East. That is, until the EQ sweep break down pulls things into the variation or break. Then some break down to let the song cool off. We’ve been traipsing musically across the Far East. More of those funky drums and crazed synths see us out, even with a little distortion on the echo ceiling.

A count down and some modest acoustic guitar constitute the beginning of “If You Run”. This melancholy Western-style tune features words and music by Grace, Homme and Sweeney.

In fact the first verse structure up to and including the first chorus of “If you run…” are only accompanied by acoustic guitar. Grace’s voice is clear, melodic and spectral, if not foreboding on lines like “…You better have a place to go”.

We introduce brash electric guitar during the bridge into the next verse which has the whole band. Kerr adding a rubbery, fretless bass in amongst Homme and Sweeny’s noisy guitars and Grace and co.’s backing vocals into the brash lead guitar break.

We back down for the last verse, but builds on the “If you run” part of the line, that, frankly, Grace’s delivery creeps me out! But that’s the job of an effective singer, the job of a musician in general. If a musician can make you feel and react in manners different from your usual instinct, that’s an effective artist.

Equally effective was Homme’s dry-flanged, feedback guitar that overpowers the end, just, all you hear after Grace’s pretty (and creepy) harmony build up at the end, is this screeching, unruly chunk of feedback.

And to think, I was worried it wouldn’t be weird enough. But I was kinda right about the length, four tunes for Volume 11… Sigh…

Tightwads & Nitwits & Critics & Heels, the second of the two volume set that is Desert Sessions Vol. 11 & 12. Photo courtesy Google

“Crucifier” is the first single and leads off Vol. 12Tightwads & Nitwits & Critics & Heels, and has lyrics by Homme, Sweeney, Kerr, Shears with the music having been written by Sweeney and Homme. Rather than have me explain it, I will lazily refer you to the video for the single and pre-release promotion.

“Chic Tweetz” with music by Berry, Mozgawa and Homme with lyrics by Hulpft and an inner monologue by Berry. Speculation as to who Hulpft really is varies from members of QOTSA to Trent Reznor, to… well, here, enjoy some third party speculation here:

Who is Töôrnst Hülpft? The best theories about the mysterious Desert Sessions collaborator

As far as the music goes, it sounds like a carousel on acid. The words are, enigmatic to say the least. All of the lyrics are delivered with a parody-laden Nordic accent. Our vocalist/lyricist for this one is said to be on-loan from the Lapland Hand To Hand Grandstand Band. Herr Hulpft penned some real gems for this track.

“Milkin’ sheep teets, these goddam sheep! I shave ’em and count dem to sleep. Send me some: nude pics! Or let’s make naughty flix. Just cram me in your mix, I got trix.”

If you want a better descriptive of this track, you’re gonna have to YouTube it. I’m sorry, I tried, but first, it’s too damn funny. The monologue at the end when the music stops is hilarious! I mean, I feel really stupid worrying that this time there wouldn’t be any humor on the disc. I was beet red when I first heard this. My sides still hurt…

This next track has a lot going for it. “Something You Can’t See” has lyrics composed by Shears, Kerr, Sweeney and Dave Catching, and music by Kerr, Sweeney, Shears and Azar. Upon my first, casual listen to this song, for the chorus I was immediately reminded of Foster The People, with the angelic vocal harmonies and all. Kind of a slow acoustic number, with some tasty guitar leads all over it. With the delay and reverb on the chorus lead vocal, it really sounds like FTP, but the lead solo puts it in Sessions territory distinctly.

The change is unique to the song and to this project, as it sounds like nothing I’ve heard from Homme yet. They settle back into the FTP ‘Imagination’ break. They build this as the song proceeds, but soon a tasty break with some perfect drum fills brings us to a surprise (and all too quick) ending. This would be a great single.

Once again, I bring to your attention, the lack of material as it’s time for the last track, “Easier Said Than Done” written by Homme and Azar.

A slow, electric piano and intermittant drums, build this slow, should-have-been-on-Like Clockwork song. I mean, this one sounds like it could have been a B-side, cut from the running time, not up to snuff in time for the release, any number of reasons why is wasn’t on Like Clockwork, but if you’ve heard Like Clockwork, you know this song should have been on Like Clockwork.

Along with the mournful electric and acoustic pianos, there is some snappy drum patterns, moody synths and tons of backing vocals.

At one point, Homme sings the line that names Volume 12, Tightwads & Nitwits & Critics & Heels, so that’s as close to a title track as we get with this set.

We cut to a verse structure with a piano line into a chorus bridge line into the big build up that takes the song into a heavenly ascension that adds more drums, more instruments, building it all up to the sun…

And then, over.

And a lousy four songs in Volume 12. Johnny Rotten’s snide voice rings in my head…

But still, the music that is contained is still leaps and bounds more intelligent, inventive and different than just about everything on playlists in all formats of music distribution.

In other words, this here is the good shit!

There has been scuttlebutt that there may be a tour for this album. I have no details about particulars about the tour, but I imagine it would be a logistics nightmare to schedule all the players needed to pull these songs off. I know Homme could fill in for Gibbons contributions, but who would fill in for Kerr if he can’t tour it? What about Claypool? He’s already involved in more projects than you can shake a stick at. Shears admits to being a solo artist now, so he could be available. What about the women who play a BIG part in Volumes 11 & 12? Will they be able to bail on their potential day jobs for a one-off tour of something described as the longest running mix tape?

Like the identity of Toonst Hulpft, I find it highly suspect…

But if you find some fateful situation should befall you, and you find yourself with the capacity to get yourself to a venue that’s hosting the Desert Sessions Live, I would say check it out in any event. If those stars can’t make it, Homme will still have Sweeney by his side, and he has enough solid, available musicians that could tour and pull it off. So it would be worth a reasonable ticket price. But if it’s part of today’s over-inflated, $500 for the nose bleed section tickets, I would only pay that if ALL the players were involved, including Matt Berry, all of them. And even then, the venue better be within reasonable driving distance, as I have no intention of driving cross country to see a forty minute set of these songs, a feeble attempt at a ZZ Top song, a feeble attempt at a Queens song, another couple of feeble covers. These songs are great but not worth that hassle and expense good…

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