Various : The Desert Sessions 9&10

Cranky, self-indulgent, uneven, unpredictable, thoroughly improper...

The middle of the desert the place to misbehave. Every few years, Josh Homme heads deep into the Mojave to fuck around a little, to carry out the secretive and powerful rituals of the Desert Sessions. Last February, he initiated a new chapter of this elite project. “Come out here and be a little vulnerable,” he told his comrades, as they assembled at the Rancho De La Luna studio in Joshua Tree for an intensive week of recording.

Rock star bullshit was off the menu. Most mornings, Homme cooked eggs for the group – a diverse bunch including Twiggy Ramirez, freshly escaped from Marilyn Manson’s band, as well as Desert Sessions regulars Chris Goss, Dave Catching and Alain Johannes, and recent Queens Of The Stone Age recruits Troy Van Leeuwen and Joey Castillo. Dean Ween made the coffee. And out on the porch the most notable newcomer, Polly Jean Harvey, worked on a dust-spattered fine new song called ‘There Will Never Be A Better Time’.

The personnel may change, but the principle behind The Desert Sessions remains the same, as Volumes 9&10 (they come in pairs) of this loose, romantic operation prove. Squeezed in between his many Queens commitments, Homme takes off to the ranch and produces music with his friends spontaneously. He forges new allegiances and test new ideas: Queens standards like ‘Hanging Tree’, ‘Millionaire’, ‘Avon’ and ‘Monsters In The Parasol’ first appeared on earlier Desert Sessions. Then the music is sneaked out on an indie label, for only the most devoted fans to track down.

Or at least it used to be. This time, Homme’s increasing success with the Queens and the presence of PJ Harvey have promoted ‘Desert Sessions 9&10’ out of the shadows and onto the latter’s label, Island. On one level, it’s an awkward fit: the expectations that would normally accompany one of the Queens or Harvey’s ‘proper’ records are ill-suited to the eccentricities of The Desert Sessions.

But Homme and Harvey couldn’t make a bad album if they tried (even if the latter got fairly close with 1998’s ‘Is This Desire?’). And so ‘Desert Sessions 9&10’ begins fantastically, with ‘Dead In Love’, a classically menacing Homme song which manages to be at once unhinged and robotic, before it spirals off into a lovely, yawning fade. Harvey plays sax, and the whole endeavour is vaguely reminiscent of ‘I Think I Lost My Headache’ from ‘Rated R’.

‘I Wanna Make It Wit Chu’ is even better, sloppy horizontal boogie in evident debt to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Miss You’, with Homme providing an uncanny impression of Mark Lanegan. Then there are Harvey’s four songs. ‘There Will Never Be A Better Time’ is astonishing, recorded within seconds of it being written, with Harvey soaring and bellowing like Robert Plant while Chris Goss locks into a flamenco guitar loop. ‘A Girl Like Me’ and ‘Crawl Home’ (the latter a duet with Homme) are almost spookily perfect hybrids of Harvey and the Queens: tense, desert swamp rock, however unlikely – to geographers, at least – that may sound. ‘Powdered Wig Machine’ meanwhile, is as weird as its title, a mathematical grid of creak, twitch and rusty electronics over which Harvey come-hithers magically.

So far, so superb. But like the best parties, ‘The Desert Sessions 9&10’ degenerates towards the end. ‘Subcutaneous Phat’ is cute enough, a mechanistic funk riff overlaid with ghostly choral effects from Homme. ‘Creosote’, though, is a determinedly annoying hillbilly pissaround. And the hammered singalong of ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ (apparently featuring “The Joshua Tree Chef’s Liberation Front Limited”) may induce psychosis in even the most empathetic listener, a familiar feeling to those who survived ‘Ending’ and ‘Piano Bench Brake’ on Volumes 7&8.

This, though, is probably as it should be: cranky, self-indulgent, uneven, unpredictable, thoroughly improper. If nothing else, it’s a reminder – perhaps to himself, as well as to us – that Josh Homme is merely mortal, that even bulletproof rock titans have their stupid days. Ironically, it’s the relative consistency of ‘9&10′ that may prove the The Desert Sessions’ downfall, since it provokes a sticky dilemma for Josh Homme. How can he have the freedom to fail on ‘Desert Sessions 11&12’, when this marvellous, haphazard institution has scored so many hits this time?

John Mulvey

Get ‘Desert sessions 9 & 10’ at the NME Shop