Friday, April 15, 2011

Foo Fighters - Wasting Light [album review]

* Released April 12th
Hot damn, the Foo Fighters finally went and made another killer album. It's been some time since we got one of these - by my estimation, you'd have to go all the way back to 1999's There Is Nothing Left To Lose. This viewpoint would surely spark a heated debate amongst Foo fans about the merits of the three studio albums that followed, but I feel each of those coasted by on a handful of good-to-excellent songs and were mainly loaded with far too much filler (as I stated here when I reviewed their 2009 Greatest Hits album). Foo guitarist, lead singer, and head honcho Dave Grohl even admitted to the now-defunct Blender magazine in 2005 that shortly after the release of 2002's One By One he realized "half of it was chud". You can forgive me if I had attached a "boy who cried wolf" attitude to this album's pre-release hype and mid-recording interviews with Grohl, where he enthusiastically labelled it the band's heaviest and strongest album yet. Some factors that did up the ante in the interesting department was the news that they were recording in Grohl's garage strictly on old school analog equipment and tape, with Butch Vig producing. Vig, of course, produced the landmark Nevermind from Grohl's former band, Nirvana, and also produced new tracks "Wheels" and "Word Forward" from the Foo's Greatest Hits. Whether Wasting Light is the group's heaviest release is debatable; to be sure, it emanates with massive walls of guitars that'll shred your face off (see "White Limo"), but so did previous albums. I mean, you can't get a whole lot heavier than the title track from 2005's In Your Honor. A strong case, however, can definitely be made for Wasting Light, the group's seventh studio album, standing as their finest yet. In fact, I'll just flat out say it is. From opener "Bridge Burning" through to closing track "Walk", it's an amazing assemblage of consistency and quality that doesn't remotely let up until about 40 minutes into the album's 48 minute running time. Here's the track-by-track breakdown:
"Bridge Burning": A simplistic, yet killer guitar riff propels this standout album tone-setter, with some subtle stylistic elements from their 2002 hit "One By One" evident on the verse guitar parts. Grohl's unique vocal style, which can find him effectively going from restrained melody to guttural scream at the drop of a hat, is on full display here. Rhythm guitarist Pat Smear, who was with the band from 1994-1997 before quitting and returning almost a decade later, makes his first full return to a Foos album since '97's The Color And The Shape, and it fattens up an already muscular sound. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the group is rounded out by guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer Taylor Hawkins.
"Rope": The album's first single opens with a clean guitar sound touched with an echo effect, offset by a dirty buzzing riff that leads into the main guitar section. Although the Foo Fighters are a guitar-based band, their secret, unsung weapon lies perched on the drum stool. Drumming in a band where Grohl is the boss can't be the easiest job (just ask previous drummer William Goldsmith, who Grohl fired), yet Hawkins has managed to establish himself as one of the finer rock drummers around. I love the heavy hitters and Hawkins is just that, but it's also the canny, artful touches to his playing that make him stand out. Examples: the busy ride cymbal pattern Hawkins plays during the chorus here, or the extra snare drum hits he lightly throws in during the last half of the verse sections, which subtly up the song's groove factor. After the first live performances of this song, the blogosphere was buzzing about how the Foos had gone full-on Rush, which was way overstated. Granted, there are some prog rock influences here, though (Hawkins gets a couple of brief solo interludes à la Neil Peart).
"Dear Rosemary": One of the more melodic numbers on the album, which is saying something. More great guitar interplay, as the verse sections feature three guitars playing tastefully different parts that steer the song into a big, tuneful Foo Fighters-101 chorus. One of Grohl's musical heroes, Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould, adds some nice harmony background vocals and some limited lead vocal lines at the end of the song, adding a fresh vocal element to the band's sound.
"White Limo": Just a straight-up kicking and raw song that shows Grohl's hardcore punk roots. On an album steeped in monster guitar riffs, this one leads the way. The vocals are mostly distorted beyond comprehension - I mean, I've already listened to this album a good 30-40 times since getting hold of an early online leak a couple of weeks ago and I still have no idea what Grohl is singing (nay, screaming) during most of it. You can make out bits and pieces when the distortion effect is dialed down somewhat during the chorus, otherwise it's pretty much just sit back and let "White Limo" pummel you. Reminiscent of "Weenie Beenie" off the debut album.
"Arlandria": "Loud-quiet-loud, etc.", or an inversion of that familiar Foos formula makes up the framework of this and many of the other tracks on Wasting Light. Don't mistake a reliance on comfortable, old songwriting habits for a band coasting, though - nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the familiar tricks, there's still a freshness to it, with a seemingly renewed energy radiating from the group.
"These Days": This one leans a little to the poppier side, which should translate to a wider crossover appeal if it gets released as a single. I can totally hear this playing on one of those retail music services that places like Walmart or Home Depot use. The mainstream musical leanings belie a dark bitterness to the lyrics, which pointedly reference someone who one day will get their own comeuppance.
"Back And Forth": It's a clear measure of the album's strength that nearly every track on it (including this one) could be released as a single. If it was the 80's, I could see a Thriller or Hysteria-like half dozen singles come off Wasting Light.
"A Matter Of Time": Further inventive guitar teamwork, particularly during the pre-chorus section, before getting hammered home during the chorus by quaking power chords and Hawkins' jackhammer bass drum.
"Miss The Misery": Good Lord, we're nine songs in and still batting 1.000.
"I Should Have Known": I spoke too soon. This one is Wasting Light's moodiest and most restrained song (at least the first half of it), not to mention its weakest. Truthfully, it isn't even all that bad - it just stands out because it isn't downright great like the other ten tracks surrounding it. Grohl states in the just-released band documentary Foo Fighters: Back And Forth (review coming soon) that the lyrics are derived from numerous situations in his past, including his relationship with former Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain. Coupled with the presence of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic (on accordion and bass) and Vig, this tints the track with a somewhat "full circle" spirit. This suggests Grohl, who has always been uneasy with living in the long shadow cast by Nirvana and the tragic circumstances that ended the band, is better coming to terms with his legacy.
"Walk": A slow builder surges towards an amped-up finish that finds Grohl screaming "I never wanna die" at the top of his lungs. There's a healing, optimistic tone to the lyrics that make it seem like the appropriate choice to close the album. Like any number of these tracks, it could become a staple in the Foos' setlists for years to come, residing comfortably alongside old standbys like "Everlong", "Times Like These", "My Hero", or "Learn To Fly".
2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, the group's last studio album, was by far their weakest yet, which makes the accomplishments here stand out even more. Wasting Light almost immediately had that intangible "special" quality to it that fundamentally hits me at my core whenever I play it, burrowing deeper than most of the music this jaded music junkie's ears hear. It's a feeling I haven't experienced in almost three years, since Metallica's Death Magnetic album, and one that comes along very rarely for me. It may only be April, but if I hear a better album this year I'll be stunned...and over the bloody moon that lightning struck twice in one year. Am I gushing too much? Well, Wasting Light is most certainly gush-worthy.
Packaging and bonus tracks: Grohl came up with the brilliant marketing plan of cutting up the complete analog master tape the album was recorded on into a million pieces measuring about 1" by 2", with one piece each being included in the first million copies of the CD packaging, making a nifty keepsake for fans. Digital backups of the masters were made, of course. As Grohl recently told L.A. Weekly magazine, "People will probably get one note, or one drumbeat...if a million people got together and put it back together they'd get the whole album". The CD booklet is nothing special, even a little on the lame side. Lyrics would have been preferable to the dull, pixelated photography the band decided to use. Bonus tracks available on both the Best Buy and iTunes deluxe editions include "Better Off", an average sounding classic rock throwback that they were wise to relegate to "b-side" status, and a remix of "Rope" by deadmau5, which is about as pointless and uninteresting as I would have expected coming from a (ugh) DJ who performs while wearing a huge costume mouse head. Other bonuses on the iTunes deluxe edition include the videos for "Rope" and "White Limo", the latter of which features bad acting from Motörhead's Lemmy, is super low-budget, intentionally cheesy, and, magnificently, makes no sense.
Rating: ★★★★★

8 comments:

  1. I loved the tune, Rope after one listen. Rock95 keeps comparing it to that 'Rush' sound .... but I don't hear it. Every Rush tune is always a constantly changing groove instrumentally whereas this is the typical Foo tempo.

    Funny to think that the only serving of shit produced by Dave thus far in his career was with John Paul Jones!

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  2. I'm a longtime FF fan and am impressed by your in depth examination of the new record. The props to Taylor were bang on!!

    Obviously you know your music and the Foos so it was interesting to read of your dislike for Echoes S P & G, an album that ranks as one of my favorites from them. What about it didn't you care for?

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  3. Mark: I'll be curious to see what you think of the rest of the album. Yeah, that Them Crooked Vultures project was, well, chud.

    Jennifer: Thanks, Jennifer. I thought it was too unfocused and didn't rock enough...I just re-listened to it after posting my review and it only reinforced my opinion.

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  4. I give the album an A-. It should be fun to hear this shit live!!!!

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  5. Outstanding album and yeah Those Crooked Vultures was absolutely brutal.

    In terms of the Rush sound I'm guessing the drum track sounds a bit like Neal Peart?

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  6. You think every song on the album rocks? Seriously?

    Well it's loud. Grohl tries really, really hard. He bellows a lot. There's a few catchy tunes with pedestrian lyrics. In other words, it's a standard Foo Fighters issue. Even in the 90s, when the Foo Fighters rocked, one had to overlook Grohl's bad singing and tune out his laughably unpoetic lyrics. He's said that he wanted to avoid the "Formerly of Nirvana" label on the Foo's first albums - no need for the label, it's painfully apparent. The songs on the Foo's best albums follow the formula created by the likes of The Pixies and Nirvana, but as Grohl has strayed from the formula on later albums, his music has become dull, boring, bellowing tripe. Grohl's got the gift, but he's not using it on Foo Fighter albums - at least not since The Colour and The Shape.

    Yes, Grohl's place is behind a drum kit, because he's among the most gifted rock drummers of all time. Them Crooked Vultures is the best album he's played on since In Utero. Speaking of which, Dave, if you "should have known," then why haven't you forgiven Kurt yet? And can we please stop calling Nirvana Dave Grohl's band? Cobain's music was darker, deeper, and heavier than anything Grohl's ever created.

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  7. I appreciate the thoughtful comments and I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree, on both the newest album and Them Crooked Vultures.

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  8. Foo Fighters always had a lot to prove. Despite David Grohl's intent to break ties from the shadow of Nirvana, lyrics and song structure for the (newly) quintet were never rocket science, oriented more for the masses than for the exploring connoisseur. That's why after the departure The Colour and the Shape meant, the stagnancy of four subsequent records made the disappointment even more deafening. The same trite of loud/quiet combination and chord progression twisted to all the possible forms called for a rapid change.

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