“... Like Clockwork” (Matador) 3 stars out of four.
How many major contemporary rock bands are we down to in America? A couple of dozen, maybe? That’s the desert-dry landscape that Queens of the Stone Age returns to with “... Like Clockwork,” and fortunately it does everything a good rock record should — wringing new blood from classic forms and sounding absolutely sexy and a little scary while doing it.
Six years after their last album, “Era Vulgaris,” Queens’ “... Like Clockwork” calls in a lot of friendly favors (cameos come from Trent Reznor, occasional drum-throne lord Dave Grohl and a very unexpected Elton John, among others). But this show is all frontman Joshua Homme’s. Singles like “My God Is the Sun” and “If I Had a Tail” have sunburned psychedelia and raw muscle to spare. They’re some of the catchiest tunes in his catalog, and are all the more venomous for it.
Homme is one of the few singers and lyricists today who know that rock ’n’ roll is built on a mix of menace and dark humor, and almost every track on “... Like Clockwork” has a moment that makes you want to drive to Joshua Tree, pound some beers and start fires in the shape of pentagrams. Some cuts like “I Sat by the Ocean” and “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” have glimmers of hazy, Big Star ’70s prettiness. But then a drop-tuned guitar bend creeps back in, Grohl’s drums beat a death march and one of SoCal’s best bands announces it isn’t going anywhere.
“Personal Record” (Merge) 2½ stars out of four.
Best known for her work as half of the sibling duo the Fiery Furnaces, singer and songwriter Eleanor Friedberger has been a rock outlier since her band burst out of the same ’00s New York scene as the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Over the following decade they poured forth ridiculous amounts of music that melded brother Matthew Friedberger’s encyclopedic knowledge of music with Eleanor’s gentle, wavering voice and way with a curious lyric.
On her second solo album, Friedberger strikes further afield of her brother’s impatient prog-rock tendencies, offering a dozen reasonably focused, verse-chorus-verse art-rock songs that draw on guitar-based ’70s rock — as seen through a spider-cracked windshield.
Which is to say, those looking for singalong joy and simple conceits have some work to do here. Friedberger’s work is often heavy with odd phrasings, curious images and jagged lyrics.
“Other Boys,” for example, features a line about a spider in a stairwell who “demonstrates acoustics to ne’er-do-wells.”
“Staring at the Sun” opens with the stage-setting line, “In the back of the tax / you turned off the TV / and read me a book on the phone.” These words are accompanied by guitar / bass / drum-heavy structures that roam easily through samba, soft-rock and ’70s canyon rock, combining to create a record that feels wonderfully askew, making “Personal Record” a challenge worth taking.