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Pop Music | RECORD RACK

Through the eyes of the suffering

April 24, 2005|Robert Hilburn; Steve Hochman; Steve Appleford; Randy Lewis; Steve Hochman | Times Staff Writer

Joshua Homme is a heavy dude, a big redhead with a weakness for dry humor and grinding sci-fi riffs. His Queens of the Stone Age makes metal minus the cliche, a sound of minimalist obsession and subversive melody as punishing as it is beautiful. Not much has changed since that vision was revealed on QOTSA's 1998 indie debut, and not much had to. The band's fourth album is as serious as Sabbath and more thrilling than a desert mosh pit.

It begins with the whiskey-and-cigarettes growl of sometime member Mark Lanegan ("This Lullaby"), slipping immediately into another churning pattern of intense electric guitars and Homme's stream-of-consciousness notions on sex, drugs and dementia -- either amusing or disturbing, depending on your point of view, and delivered with steady focus and a warmth as soft and dangerous as quicksand.

Fired bassist Nick Oliveri is missed for his wild spasms of noise and unpolished fury, but Homme fills those empty spaces with plenty of angst of his own. That intensity can be heard in the smallest details, as when "Burn the Witch" soars with the heavy heart and fire of ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. This is metal that swings, heavy with a deft touch, leading finally to a windy coda full of somber horns and wider horizons.

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Even Eels need room to breathe

Eels

"Blinking Lights and Other Revelations" (Vagrant)

* * * 1/2

Fetalmania, anyone? Maybe not, but the snappy, '60s-ish dance goof "Going Fetal" -- complete with crowd screams, Tom Waits literally crying a guest solo and screwball horns -- gives it a go. That's one of the wry, self-knowing side trips among the 32 songs on the two-disc sixth album from the Eels, a.k.a. E, a.k.a. Mark Oliver Everett. Is he fighting instincts to just curl up in a ball or fighting temptations not to? Probably both -- understandably, as after facing family deaths in past albums he now faces his fears of just about everything.

Calling an Eels album personal and somber seems redundant, but compared with the guitar-rock discord of the two preceding albums, this return to meticulously crafted pop miniatures seems even more inward-directed. Brian Wilson and Lindsey Buckingham come to mind as precedents.

But it's also breezier in its subdued melancholy, and Everett allows himself room to breathe (and sigh) even as he explores his own emotional suffocation. Ultimately in "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)," he embraces a full range of experience, from crying his guts out to enjoying a sunrise. Some conclusions seem trite ("It's not all good and it's not all bad"), but they're right, viewed from a fetal position or otherwise.

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Kinda like one more Dixie Chick

Miranda Lambert

"Kerosene" (Epic)

* * 1/2

This 21-year-old from Lindale, Texas, has a vocal confidence and fresh-scrubbed beauty that made her strong showing on the inaugural season of "Nashville Star," country music's version of "American Idol," a no-brainer.

But the songs on her debut album, for which she wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12, indicate that behind the pretty face is a musician who demands to be taken seriously.

She's got a lot to say in these lyrically packed songs, the best of which exhibit a brashness and no-nonsense attitude, along with a vocal authority, that bring to mind Dixie Chicks firebrand Natalie Maines. (Not coincidentally, Lambert and the Chicks have the same manager.)

The catchiest number is "I Can't Be Bothered," the one song she didn't write. It's a snappy, honky-tonk shuffle, written by another "Nashville Star" contestant, Travis Howard, about someone trying to kiss off the memory of the one who dumped her.

There are times when Lambert would be better off zeroing in and focusing on one thought than expressing everything that's on her mind.

But there are far worse crimes being committed in contemporary country music than having too much to say. And with age often comes not only wisdom but brevity.

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A debut album of dubious Bravery

The Bravery

"The Bravery" (Island)

**

The taunts being hurled by rivals the Killers about the Bravery's origins as a ska band before it jumped on the neo-post-punk juggernaut are no more relevant than knocking the Beatles for their skiffle past or Mick Jones for being a pub-rocker before starting the Clash. But the Bravery's debut album doesn't counter the Killers' criticisms in any aspect save for catchiness.

Catchy it is, though. And why shouldn't it be, with tunes and tones that would be instantly familiar to anyone who has heard Modern English, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran on KROQ's "Flashback Lunch"? "An Honest Mistake" opens things with an undeniable hook appeal that carries through most of the album. But once you get past the surface attractions, Sam Endicott's arch singing and rock-rebel posturing are forced, and his production is as stiff as the mechanical discoid rhythms.

This sin of simulacrum is worse than many contemporaries' only by a matter of degrees, but it's enough to put it on the wrong side of the credibility scale. And if that's not enough, there's "Public Service Announcement," with Endicott intoning a chorus of "Stop, drop and roll, you're on fire." Is it parody? A children's safety song gone horribly wrong? Or just cluelessness?

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On the Web

To hear samples from Bruce Springsteen, the Eels, Miranda Lambert, the Bravery and Queens of the Stone Age, visit calendarlive.com/rack.

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