Various Artists

Every year a ragtag caravan of musicians speeds through the California wasteland, kicking up a cloud of sand as it heads toward its remote, mystical destination. Burning Man? Nah. They're going to Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree, where Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme has presided over his Desert Sessions since 1997: an ever-mutating collective that assembles to write and record a batch of songs in the span of a week or so. Last February's gathering, which forms the basis of Volumes 9 & 10, drew the likes of Polly Jean Harvey, Dean Ween, and Twiggy Ramirez (ex-Marilyn Manson), among many others.

The result is nothing short of spectacular -- you won't find this much intense chemistry at a postdoctoral science institute. Opener "Dead in Love" lays the sludgy riffage on thick before giving way to a trippy, Floydian coda; "Covered in Punk's Blood" sounds like Badmotorfinger-era Soundgarden mixed with jungle beats; and "Subcutaneous Phat" rides a low and dirty soul-funk groove. But it's Polly Jean who really steals the show, providing vocals on half the tracks and lending her sax, piano, and bass skills to them as well. The smoldering "There Will Never Be a Better Time," which pairs her reverberating wail with Chris Goss's urgent acoustic strumming, is absolutely spine-tingling, while the surf rocker "Crawl Home" might be one of the best tunes she's ever affixed her inimitable growl to. Skip these Desert Sessions at your own peril.

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Michael Alan Goldberg