It's probably not "fair" to listen to this album with reference to someone uninvolved in the recording process (although Everybody Knows That You're Insane shows that he was present in Josh Homme's head) but the absence of Nick Oliveri weaves itself through the winding desert badlands of Queens' fourth album.
In a way Lullabies serves to punctuate the bludgeoning completeness of Songs For The Deaf by acting as a document of some kind of deconstructed version of the band, because although Homme has always maintained that the band would have no fixed line up it was always assumed that at the centre of the revolving cast would be the most formidable pair in Rock music for over a decade.
For now though, it's better for all concerned to hear the album in whatever isolation you can find for it, and Homme's vision and abilities can be heard to be well intact. Burn The Witch and Someone's In The Wolf ride into a town populated mostly by garage rock wannabes and 80s post punk revivalists knowing that they were wrought by a rock songsmith with an uncommon understanding of the way the elements can be combined to visit raw gyrating power upon an audience and can kick the arse of anyone who gets in the way.
Burn The Witch is built on a stomping blues (along the lines of No One Knows but without that song’s tight focus) with a trademark Homme-psychedelic chorus and guitars courtesy of one Billy F (ZZ Top) Gibbons. Someone’s In The Wolf lulls you in with ambient spookiness before taking you from behind with a chugging kidney punch of a riff over which the ghoulish verse melody and lyrics warning of the perils of the night flow. The chorus (“So glad you could stay forever") holds you with the strength of 10 men and teeth sink in but you don’t want to fight it, you welcome the demons drunkenly. When it breaks down you hear knives, whispers and stalking spirit guitars (and what sounds like the buttering of toast !?!?). The chorus vocal comes back in quietly then BAM!!! The riff is right there behind you and gaining ground towards a rushing climax.
It all opens with This Lullaby and the indescribably magnificent voice of Mark Lannegan floating on a pretty sea shanty of a tune backed only by Homme’s acoustic guitar. Medication is next with the kind of one note riff Homme has employed before giving it that 80mph-in-a-pickup-on-a-desert-road feel. It’s probably the song which would fit most comfortably on Songs For The Deaf but while it has a fine melody it lacks a real slamming chorus so ends up feeling slightly underdeveloped.
Everybody Knows That You're Insane starts inauspiciously, like something off Chris Cornell's solo album but blows wide open around the 70 second mark with a chorus that lacks an original sounding melody or riff but in QOTSA's hands is an unstoppable behemoth. The second verse rolls like a desert thundercloud into the second chorus then the breathtaking breakdown/solo steams in like Muhammad Ali coming off the ropes in Zaire.
Tangled Up In Plaid feels overweight, the loping first verse going 30 or 40 seconds too long and running out of momentum before the (strangely Foo Fighters guitar sounding) chorus kicks in and the solo and outro sections are uninspiring. In My Head is one of the weakest songs QOTSA ever put their name to, never getting off the deck and feeling sluggish and sick all the way through.
Luckily for us Little Sister follows and steams in, obliterating the previous song’s bloated carcase with toe-tapping cowbell and a textured verse riff and cowboy melody leading to a pumping full-speed-ahead chorus. It loses it’s way slightly through the breakdown, gradually pulling itself together for the finale. It’s not one of the greatest songs of all time but it is a tight traditional pop song and following Plaid it sounds like a work of genius.
I Never Came is pretty enough in parts but lacks enough substance to carry it for almost 5 minutes. The Blood Is Love waltzes on in and soon becomes victim to another undisciplined ramble that feels like an underdeveloped jam as does Skin On Skin. Broken Box saves the day somewhat, a nicely formed piece of hip-swinging Stone Age pop before You Got A Killer Scene There Man pushes open the swing doors and strides to the bar where it proceeds to get classily toasted.
Unfortunately Long Slow Goodbye lives up to its name, being too long and if not slow, then just plain ordinary. The “hidden" track 15 gets down and frisky Chris Isaac style and is a nice hazy way to finish a voyage which alternately carries you on glorious skies and makes you wade through the mud.
Ultimately it sounds like Josh Homme almost on autopilot, like a boxer who knows there’s no one else in his division who can touch him so he can go through the motions and still hold that belt aloft at the end of the fight without really extending himself or reaching deep down inside. It really serves to illuminate how much Oliveri influenced SFTD and Rated R in a far greater capacity than just as bass slinger and howler. While the darkness remains in copious quantities on Lullabies what’s missing is the lean menace and psychopathic malevolence of Oliveri’s spirit and when you go back and listen to Rated R and Songs For The Deaf you come to realise that his songwriting skills have been somewhat overshadowed by that devilish persona.
You get the feeling that Homme’s best work has been, and will be, created when his no-bull*** punk rock mate is around to tell him when a song is simply doing the business rather than ripping the business’ throat out like QOTSA have always done at their best. So in the context of rock’s class of 2005 it’s 4.5/5, but by QOTSA standards it has too many flaws, too many bland passages and weak riffs and melodies for something crafted by the reigning kings. Yes, they’re still the coolest band on the planet by miles but on this evidence it might have gone to their heads. – Bucho.