Growing Toward the Mainstream

Red Hot Chili Peppers, By the Way, and
Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf

Most artistically successful groups evolve toward obscurity — think of Radiohead and Wilco in recent years — crafting an idiosyncratic vision that wins admirers and praise but threatens to alienate the people who fell in love with the bands in the first place.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queens of the Stone Age, on the other hand, have grown by refining their songcraft toward the mainstream. Not coincidentally, these bands also produced two of 2002’s best albums: the Peppers’ By the Way and the Queens’ Songs for the Deaf.

And while pairing those two alternative-rock bands on a 2003 summer tour — headlined by the Chili Peppers — seemed odd, there was a certain justice in it: Here were two outfits quite possibly at their apexes.

Both bands outgrew their tags — funk-rap-rock for the Chili Peppers and stoner metal for the Queens — quite a while ago, but neither had produced something to stand the test of time. Until 2002.

Surprisingly, By the Way — the Peppers’ eighth album — is far more of a pop record than a rock one, earnest and plaintive with hooks galore, soaring choruses, harmony background vocals, and lush production. Not being a fan of the Chili Peppers, I was shocked by the record’s consistency and focus. The lyrics are the weakest link, but musically the band has never been better.

The lead and title track rocks hardest on the album, and although it fits with the rest of the work, the edge is a tad deceptive. Flea’s hyperactive bass and Anthony Kiedis’ rap intertwine, really for the only time on the whole affair. Those wanting similar pyrotechnics throughout will have their hopes dashed with the second track, “Universally Speaking,” which has the feel of a parody with its insistent, rote drumming, lackadaisical guitar solo, and swooning chorus. But it’s done with a straight face, and Kiedis sells the hell out of it, setting the stage for the rest of the Peppers’ poppy masterpiece.

By the Way shows its true nature on “Dosed,” a delicate, mournful ballad that spotlights Kiedis’ unpolished but sweet falsetto as well as the band’s striking gift for arrangement, harmony, and layered production. The full, intricate, and buffed sound of By the Way has drawn comparisons to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and strange as those sound, they make sense in the context of the album. There’s something approaching art in the album’s craft.

That’s also true with Queens of the Stone Age. Led by singer-guitarist Josh Homme and bassist Nick Oliveri (both of whom were involved in cult icon Kyuss), Queens of the Stone Age has shown a much faster progression than the Peppers. Songs for the Deaf — just the group’s third full-length — figures to stand rightfully alongside meaty slabs of hard rock from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The music has such a primal thundering quality that it already sounds decades old.

In some cases, it is: The first single, “No One Knows,” is built on the riff from Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded.” (But don’t let that scare you.) “Go with the Flow” is a great Neil Young/Pearl Jam track, with a leading guitar squall reminiscent of “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Those borrowings don’t detract, though. Like good drama, Songs for the Deaf doesn’t have an easily discernible final destination. The music avoids formula, so even on repeat listenings there’s the tingle of potential surprise, that anything can happen — such as the swarm of orchestral strings that comes out of nowhere at the climax of “No One Knows.”

Throughout, Queens of the Stone Age blend the familiar with things you’ve never heard in this context. “Song for the Dead” features ghostly moaning and guitar lines that prove to be some of the more haunting sounds you could ever hope to hear in a driving rock song, and Homme’s warbly guitar lead in “Hangin’ Tree” provides a special urgency.

The album isn’t perfect. Juvenile between-track digs at commercial radio are somewhat tiresome, even though they provide effective segues into songs. And the screaming tracks, although they offer some variety, seem somewhat forced when compared to the organic, almost leisurely singing and playing that dominate the album.

Although the style of Songs for the Deaf is miles away from By the Way, there are some striking similarities: The hooks never stop, and the production is sterling and rich. If ever you needed evidence that great execution can make even standard fare exciting — the Queens’ “Another Love Song” announces with its title low expectations but transcends them — look no further than these two records and bands.

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