After a sixteen-year hiatus, Josh Homme and Friends’ Desert Sessions is back – a project so niche and illusive it requires a “Josh Homme and Friends’” prefix. For the uninitiated, Desert Sessions is a long running rock ‘n roll mixtape series, first started in 1997. Recorded over just shy of a week in Joshua Tree, CA, the idea behind the project is to let Homme’s carefully selected parade of musical icons isolate themselves from life’s daily distractions to casually write, record and see what happens. The same is as true in 2019 as it was in 1997. Same location, same basic premise, the only real difference is the colourful cast around Homme. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons is here rubbing shoulders with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr, Autolux and Jack White’s Carla Azar, Primus’ Les Claypool and, somehow, British television’s Matt Berry. An eclectic mix, it has to be said. Gather these people in a secluded studio, and just see what happens – Desert Sessions 11 & 12 is what you get.
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We open with ‘Move Together’, and my God is it good to hear Jake Shears’ voice again – you don’t realise how much you miss something until its gone, do you? Building from barely any instrumentation to a full Queens of the Stone Age suite of hazy, stoner sounds, before then pulling right back to comfortably find its groove. Already with a single song we see that 11 & 12 is every bit as polished as the volumes that came before it, if not more so. Shears makes a surprisingly convincing Homme stand-in, who knew?
Speaking of Homme and QOTSA, ‘Noses in Roses, Forever’ comes across as a Queens B-side, and an Era Vulgaris one at that. A perfectly synchronised jam that oozes the infectious fun that probably spawned, if not the song but the entire Desert Sessions endeavour. There is some deliciously playful Homme falsetto in the track.
We then arrive at ‘Far East For The Trees’, which might be my favourite song on the album – a tight, otherworldly instrumental that sees Homme taking on guitar, sig fiddle, dobro, clavinet and piano duties. Almost as if he was trying to consciously outdo Dave Grohl’s Play project in the space of a single five-minute instrumental. I’m not trying to sow the seeds of dissent between the two to explain why we haven’t had a second Them Crooked Vultures album yet – you are. Long story short, ‘Far East For The Trees’ is exactly the right balance of tight musicianship and sheer trippy experimentation. It’s exactly what you would want and expect given the entire concept of Desert Sessions and the circumstances that spawned it.
‘If You Run’ is a confident debut for (entirely un-Googleable) newcomer Libby Grace, who takes lead vocal and writing credits here alongside Homme and Matt Sweeney. It’s an impressive effort given these circumstances, hopefully the first of more to come from Grace under Homme et al.’s tutorage. ‘Crucifire’ sees Mike Kerr step up to handle vocals, with Jake Shears at his side. It’s a back-to-basics rock jam that soars and never outstays its welcome.
‘Chic Tweetz’ has definite shades of Eagles of Death Metal’s comedic sensibilities, for better or worse. This is where Matt Berry makes his appearance, naturally. The song is novel at first, but like a rap skit or indulgent album intro, is quickly skipped and forgotten. A funny idea in the studio, or rather in the desert, but entirely forgettable beyond that. The mysterious (and equally un-Googleable) Töôrnst Hülpft is the main comedic voice here – and the prevailing Reddit theory seems to be that his actual identity is either Homme himself, or Dave Grohl... The latter theory of which throws my crackpot behind-the-scenes drama entirely out of the window. The mileage you will get out of ‘Chic Tweetz’ depends entirely on your patience for Homme’s brand of humour, something which has been shared liberally throughout the promotion of 11 & 12. I usually have a lot of time for Homme’s humour but here, I just didn’t. In an already arguably self-indulgent side project, of which Homme has many, this feels too much.
The bitter taste left by ‘Chic Tweetz’ is quickly eclipsed by ‘Something You Can’t See’ and ‘Easier Said Than Done’. The former sees Shears return to lead vocals, creating a glistening sunset song that cruises by like a babbling brook. It’s all too natural a fit for Shears, and frankly, ‘Something You Can’t See’, like ‘If You Run’ before it, deserves to be heard on a broader release. ‘Easier Said Than Done’ sees Homme, Shears and Kerr come together and nicely round things off. Homme sounds accidentally Bowie-esque in short bursts here, before his unmistakable quivering QOTSA vocal returns, effortlessly supported by Shears and Kerr – who already prove themselves elsewhere on the album.
11 & 12 might be the tightest Desert Sessions collections yet. It’s experimental and fresh without ever feeling impenetrable or, dare I say, artsy in a double release that would be quite easily forgiven for getting away with itself. Fans of Homme or anything he has ever done will feel right at home here, but there is plenty for fans of Jake Shears, Royal Blood and hell, even Toast of London to enjoy here too. Don’t sleep on this.
Joshua Homme's Desert Sessions Vols. 11 & 12 is out now via Matador Records.