06 April, 2011

Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

 (Note:  This is an advance review.  Wasting Light will be released in stores and online in the United States on April 12, 2011)

Wasting Light isn’t going to surprise anybody with its sound, but that’s par for the course with the Foo Fighters at this point.  What should surprise you is how tight the set is, and the hope is that the Foo Fighters can really pull off the neat trick of growing older without losing any of their fire.  As far as this year goes, I’m comfortable with claiming that it’s a great way to begin the summer, and is the strongest that the band has sounded in years. 

Without the Foo Fighters – and more specifically, without the song “Everlong” – I would not be here writing this blog for you.  There have been many titles that have influenced my musical choices over the years, but The Colour and the Shape was the first rock record that I ever owned and could truly call mine.  Before this, my tastes in pop music were an amalgamation of what I heard my parents play (a lot of Genesis and Paul Simon) and the classic rock that was available on WKQQ-FM in Lexington, Kentucky (this is due to my father, whose tastes tended toward the heavier sounds in the family).  But then I heard three chords that changed my life over the radio, and I immediately turned up the radio to have the following words burn themselves into my brain:

If anything could ever be this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You gotta promise not to stop when I say when

When I think about it, there has been enough words written about the moment influential British radio DJ John Peel must have felt when he first heard the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” come on.  The man loved the song so much he had the words etched into his tombstone, and supposedly always cried when it came on the airwaves.  While I can’t claim that honor for this particular song, I imagine that the nostalgia trip of youth and expectant promises of tomorrow are exactly what a song such as “Everlong” evokes.  It is a song that explodes with emotion, dynamic sound, and the crunchiest drum lick that ever came from a place near Seattle.  When I first heard the song, it convinced me that I needed to find other songs like “Everlong,” and I bought The Colour and the Shape to begin my journey.  I’ve stuck with the Foo Fighters ever since, and while I’ve grown up some I always feel I can come back to the band, fronted by a man unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve while pounding away at power chords. 

All of this is prologue to reach the inevitable conclusion that Dave Grohl wrote a perfect pop song in “Everlong,” and a classic of the late Nineties alternative-to-mainstream scene in The Colour and the Shape, and he will never replicate either accomplishment again.  Ever.  It’s a plague that has followed his work in Foo Fighters through their many stages, and has hurt each one of their albums.  From emerging as a full band in There Is Nothing Left to Lose to the overprocessed drone of One By One, from the grunge apotheosis of the dynamic loud-quiet double album In Your Honor to the Grammy-winning (but oh-so-disappointing) Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace, and even at the career midpoint albums Skin and Bones (another all acoustic record) and Greatest Hits, the Foos have struggled to maintain that level of dynamism and hookiness within each of their records.  Call it an extended slump (and I won’t, because you don’t get to sell out Wembley Stadium when you aren’t on the top of the charts, which is how I justify my love for Oasis’s late period), but Grohl and Co. cannot seem to put together a thematically consistent record that is also dynamically rewarding as a long-form player. 

Enter the dynamic duo of two of the largest names in rock, all hearkening back to the heyday of grunge.  Butch Vig (of Garbage fame, as well as the producer of seminal records like the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream) and Krist Novoselic, both former collaborators with Grohl during his earlier days, show up in the studio (which was apparently used to record analog material, making this the cheapest Foo Fighters sound that has been done in years) to help the band regain some of the fire that has been lost since the second half of In Your Honor.  By bringing former rhythm guitarist Pat Smear back into the Foo-fold, Grohl has finally assembled the perfect sounding band to realize his sonic ambitions.  But if Grohl had only listened to his former records, he’d realize that he never needed all the people in the first place since his first albums have an amazing glow about them that comes from pure artistic expression.  He’s not putting people together to find a new sound, but rather to improve on the mold that he never leaves throughout his career post-Colour.

Nonetheless, all the players are present to provide a crunchy rock experience, and that promise is fulfilled during the opening cut “Bridges Burning,” which sounds like it could burst out of the stereo with pure excitement.  In typical Foo fashion, the chunky and precise percussion riffs (appropriate for someone that was once – and may still be – the best drummer in the rock world) give way to sledgehammer drumming from Taylor Hawkins while Nate Mendel rolls the bass underneath the streaming chaos.  While Grohl sings “Devil in the ashes/everything’s been blown away,” his band backs him up and makes it sound as though an airplane is about to take off.  While it references back to the second half of the track “But Honestly” off their last studio record, it is a bracing piece that seems to place melody in between walls of guitars and rawk coming from them.

The first single “Rope” is no different, but this one takes one even further back to the sound of the Nineties with its delay pedal and loud-louder-loud dynamics.  The chorus is again a vintage Grohl cut, but the song hits harder than other versions of this type of single that were attempted (“The Pretender,” “Low,” and “No Way Back”) that also touch on themes of breaking away and realizing the fact that you’re just no good.  A good first single, but not necessarily indicative of the rest of the album.  

“Dear Rosemary” is a classy rock romp that never leaves its midtempo groove, but it’s fine because of the excellent use of Bob Mould’s comforting backing vocals (Grohl here must be repaying the man for lifting the words from Husker Du’s classic “New Day Rising”).  It was a fine song that I didn’t want to end because of the unexpected warmth of the track.  “White Limo” sounds like the band’s interpretation of the desert sounds of Queens of the Stone Age, particularly from the period of Rated R, and Grohl’s screams echo the hardcore fans that have been listening since the Big Me EP. 

But things begin to return to static solidarity in the follow-up song, “Arlandria,” and it’s not hard to see that Grohl and company are returning to their old habits because there’s nothing really new here.  If the band is meat-and-potatoes rock n’ roll, then this is a dinner for them.  But here’s the thing:  NOBODY does this as well as the Foo Fighters, which is why they have become as big as they are.  A tense verse riff, enough space to move through the drums, and the chorus is suitably gigantic enough to imagine it sounding amazing when played among thousands of people.  “These Days” continues the trend, hitting all the right notes so that you can imagine it becoming a suitably huge single.  The guitar tone and soft-loud dynamic would feel right at home in the middle of The Colour and the Shape, and the song becomes an easy anthem for a movie montage.  That’s what it feels like Grohl is aiming for with his anthemic lyrics. 

Unfortunately, the album is a top-heavy one that fills its middle section with nondescript songs that fade after the first play.  “Back & Forth” is a call back to the AOR roots that the Foos have shown throughout their other album cuts.  Technically precise musicianship aside, the song doesn’t necessarily break out of its workmanlike mold, and only the chorus really redeems the song as a work.  “A Matter of Time” seems to be the closest that the band gets to a new wave track, with a surging bridge that touches on different vocal rhythms before returning to the banging drums and octave chords that the band does best.  “Miss the Misery” brings in flange effects before turning into a Seventies Kiss track. 

It is because of these middling points that the next track is so stunning.  “I Should Have Known” has a great sense of drama where the guitars hold back while Grohl screams into the distorted microphone.  Novoselic guests here, and it seems to reinvigorate Grohl the musician.  This may be the first time in a while that I’ve heard a bass melody line anchor a Foo Fighters track, and it is a refreshing change of pace for the band.  It also adds extra weight to have these two titans together, because when Grohl sings “I should have known that it would end this way/I should have known that there was no other way” you know exactly what/who he’s talking about.  Even if it’s about the dissolution of a relationship that is ambiguous, the knowledgeable listener will shed a tear when they hear Dave build up to screaming “I cannot forgive you yet!” before the strings send us off on a cloud wave.  As far as gut punches go, it’s a late-inning stunner on this record and is my favorite Foo Fighters song of the past decade. 

My first impression of “Walk” is that it unfortunately rips off Tal Bachman’s end-of-century guilty pleasure “She’s So High.”  My second impression is that it will make an excellent accompaniment to a “pick myself up from the ashes” video that will eventually come from it.  It’s too anthemic and huge, with new wave guitars and a verse-chorus that’s solely Grohl before his band comes back in.  Were I still in high school, I’d pray that this played on the day of graduation.  All the lyrics deal with coming into one’s own as a person and an artist, and it builds to a suitably rock conclusion. 

Ultimately that’s the story behind this album.  Nobody is expecting the Foo Fighters to really surprise anybody at this point in their career, and this is actually the perfect beginning to a summer music session.  This isn’t really a new beginning but a consolidation of strengths.  There isn’t really any reason to loath the Foo Fighters because one always knows what they’re getting when they pick up an album by them, and that sense of anticipation that’s reserved for albums by bands like the Strokes.  However, I ask the question:  Is it better to try new things and fail like the Strokes did?  Or should an album play to one’s strengths and not necessarily push boundaries?  Even though the Foo Fighters claim to try new things, they will always pursue that huge rock chorus that packs people into stadiums, and good for them because sometimes a person doesn’t need to pursue art to make an album worthwhile.  Is this my favorite album of the year?  Absolutely not.  Is this the best Foo Fighters album in a long time?  Absolutely. 

All the way through the record and I didn’t make a single (overt) Nirvana reference.  How about that for coming into one’s own as artists?

Wasting Light by Foo Fighters


Jake said...

i don't like screamers. i like to be able to sing along to a song without feeling like someone poured acid (the bad kind, not the fun kind) down my throat. but i will be damned if i don't like it when dave grohl does it.

for whatever reason when dave ends a lyric with an emphatic exclamation of larynx-shredding magnitude, i just have to go, 'shit that sounds good.' i can't help it. i think it partly has to do with the fact he doesn't do it just to do it. he is driving home a point.

the album jumps out of the gate with a bang, and then elevates with rope (maybe a bit of gratuitous screaming, but i'll let it slide). for the most part this album is pure rock, which, for me, is a bit of its downfall.

i come from a long background of wall of sound artists (hello springsteen) with many different instruments and pace and sounds. so when i am listening to nothing but balls to the walls rock with two guitars and a bass, i am easily bored. i love ac/dc but holy shit do their records blend together. and this is along those same lines.

i do like the pacing of the album overall. just when i have my fill of gut-busting, i get to take a little break before being plunged right back into head banging.

i should have known is by far the best track on the album. you can hear, feel, and almost see the emotions wrought by the track. it is sad, angry, surreal, really fucking good.

as a whole this is a good album. if i were more of a purist, it would probably move up to great.

Eric Lahm said...

DAMNIT!!!! it ate my post!!!!

You mentioned Grohl being one of the greatest drummers out there, but I'd also like to throw out that he may be one of the greatest Rock Voices as well. I find his vocals to be the perfect balance between the progressive and a harkening back to the glory days of the 90's.

I want to thank you for this post. The Foo Fighters are one of my all time favorite bands, yet I always seem to forget about them until someone brings them up, at which point I become obsessed with them for a month (as will happen immediately following the post). I guess now I need to go out asap and buy the album.

Great post sir, great post....

Moodicarus said...

Glad that you mainly agreed, Jake, because it's been some time since we found some common musical ground. I think that this and the Strokes records were the most difficult to review since so many of the tracks blend together, but the difference between tracks was the joy and passion that Dave provides in his vocals. Both have talented bands backing them up and providing sonic architecture, but Julian Casablancas gave the record the passion of a wet fish. When Dave screams, it's in service to the melody, not to replace it. Ultimately, because of the similarity of so many of the tracks it is difficult to claim that this is a great album, but I do believe that this fulfills the need for a summer album.

Duck said...

Good review. I'll have to check out the new album.

I would be interested to hear more about why you felt their last studio album was so disappointing though. I love the majority of that album.

Curt Adams said...

I loved reading your review. But that fire you mentioned in the first paragraph died 10 years ago and for the last decade this band has been nothing better then a mainstream uninspired christian rock band.

Record Label guy: Dave we need you to make a new record. Rock is dying and your our most talented asset.

Dave G: I don't know, it's just not the same any more.

Label Guy: We will pay you handsomely!

Dave: Ah, I pretty set.

Label Guy: but we really need you.

Dave: Well I guess I don't have anything else to do.

Label Guy: Great! Your talents will carry this record we have faith in you to make a great album.

Me: This crap sparks no emotion in me.

Moodicarus said...

Duck, you raise a good point. The last album was disappointing to me because it just seemed that the Foo Fighters were going through the motions, and the songs seemed to be devoid of all the joy that is present within their videos (at least when they try). I listened to that album on repeat for a while, but beyond the singles the only one that stood out to me was "But Honestly." Everything else was a formulaic song that had a gigantic chorus but nothing of musical note besides it. I'm glad they took a chance with the "Battle of the Beaconsfield Miners," but it never panned out how I imagine the band wanted it to sound. Really, the band is a good singles band these days, but this is the first album in a while where they seemed to be really trying.

Curt, your exchange was hilarious; sadly, it's also probably accurate to One by One and the last album.

Duck said...

Thanks for elaborating on why you didn't like the previous album. I hear you, but there's a comfort factor in knowing exactly what you're going to get with some artists, and like you said, NOBODY does this particular rock and roll formula as well as the Foo Fighters.

It's kind of like going to McDonald's. You're not going there to experience the latest in culinary trend-setting, but you do have expectations. Those fries had better be hot and salty, and the mix had better not be off on the Coke machine. You don't want to go in there and see they've turned the whole place into an Asian/American fusion joint overnight.

That being said, I'm also a big Pearl Jam fan, and they still take heat for not just rehashing Ten over and over again. Kind of a damn if you do, damned if you don't situation for artists in general I think.