Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
With the release of their third album, There Is Nothing Left To Lose (1999), Foo Fighters finally solidified their guitar/bass/drums lineup of Dave Grohl, Nate Mendel & Taylor Hawkins, who would soon be joined on tour (and future recordings) by second guitarist Chris Shiflett. They picked up where they left off on 1997’s The Colour And The Shape with another collection of mostly hook-laden melodic rock songs. I’m not sure it’s quite as good as its predecessor, but at least 6 of the 11 songs here would have to be included on any Foo Fighters compilation I put together. The album begins with “Stacked Actors,” which shifts between raw vocals, huge drums, crunchy guitars & harsh production (reminiscent of Weezer’s second album, Pinkerton) and a jazzier, almost Latin-tinged arrangement during the verses. This song is all about dynamics and Grohl’s impassioned singing (“Stacked dead actors, stacked to the rafters”).
[Foo Fighters – “Stacked Actors”]
“Breakout” has what would now be considered the “classic Foo Fighters sound” (similar to hits like “Monkey Wrench” & “Everlong”), adding in a cool phased guitar sound and featuring an incredibly catchy chorus (“I don’t want to look like that…you know you make me break out”). “Learn To Fly” was a huge hit for them, and it’s easy to hear why. It’s filled with killer hooks, a lyrical vibe that recalls Tom Petty’s similarly-titled “Learning To Fly,” and an irresistible driving groove with that off-beat tambourine hit during the verses. That’s a pretty good batch of songs to start the album. Although “Gimme Stitches” has a nice hook in the chorus (“Dress me up in stitches it’s now or never, tired of wearing black and blue”), it doesn’t have the impact of the first three songs, but it’s followed by one of the best songs here, “Generator,” which has a great driving rhythm and a Peter Frampton-esque voice box guitar effect.
Grohl briefly played with the aforementioned Tom Petty, whose influence can be heard on the instantly memorable “Next Year.” Continuing the midtempo pop/rock of earlier songs like “Big Me,” it has a Beatle-y ascending bass line and was catchy enough to be used as the theme song for the early-‘00s TV series, Ed. “Headwires” has some nice shifts between the moody verses and brighter choruses (“Better than a bullet being fired, tangled in your headwires now”). “Ain’t It The Life” has an acoustic, back porch feel, with a lilting melody that’s melancholy but not maudlin. It didn’t immediately grab me, but after listening to the album 4-5 times it slowly became one of my favorites. The rest of the songs each have elements I enjoyed but they weren’t as strong as the ones I already mentioned. This kept There Is Nothing Left To Lose from reaching the level of the first two albums, but I still consider it essential for anyone who likes their music. “Aurora” has a nice chorus (“Hell yeah, I remember Aurora”) and a great hook at “And it’s on and on and on…,” but although I like his softer vocals, at nearly 6 minutes it’s unnecessarily long. For fans of the short-lived but brilliant early-‘90s power pop band Jellyfish, the chorus of album closer “M.I.A.” (“You won’t find me I’m going M.I.A.”) sounds to me like a slower version of the chorus from their song “Now She Knows She’s Wrong.” On a related note, Jellyfish’s original guitarist, Jason Falkner, has had an exceptional solo career (which began around the same time as Foo Fighters), and his voice has often reminded me of Grohl at his most melodic & inviting. Anyone who enjoys the poppier side of Foo Fighters should check out some of Falkner’s work.
Their first album of the new millennium, One By One (2002), has a number of excellent songs…in fact many of them are up there with their best work…but a few factors made it slightly less enjoyable than the previous albums. First, most of the songs are too long, which makes the album more of a chore to get through. Where the first three albums clocked in at around 45 minutes, this one is 10 minutes longer (with the same number of songs), and the extended song times often work against them. Still, this is a relatively minor complaint, and there’s a lot to like here. “Low” is a monster Smashing Pumpkins-esque song with a propulsive groove unlike anything else they had done. For such a manic track, Grohl’s voice is relatively soft throughout. There’s no real chorus, but it switches gears at “Taking you as low as you go” and has a great repeated refrain of “You be my passerby, I’ll be your one to pass through.” “Have It All” is a bright alternative-rock tune with a memorable 5-note riff and chiming guitar pattern. Although it repeats itself too much over its 5 minutes, I do love the melodic chorus (“In too deep, she’s spilling over me, don’t wanna have it all”). “Times Like These” was an obvious radio hit with a fantastic groove and guitar figure. Lyrically, it sounds like he was going through a transitional period (“You learn to live again…love again…time and time again”). “Disenchanted Lullaby” is slower, more atmospheric & sparse, with tight harmonies, but shifts to a louder chorus (“I may be scattered…a little shattered…what does it matter?”).
I love the subdued PJ Harvey-influenced guitar & vocal intro to “Tired Of You,” and the way they add some muted squealing guitar to the mix. It has a completely unique feel and maintains the same groove throughout, making it a standout track. After the quiet intro to “Lonely As You,” I like the insistent rhythm and 2-part harmony lead vocals throughout the verses, as well as the hook at “One more time for the last time, aaahhhh.” It may not be hit single material, but it’s a nice change of pace while still clearly being a Foo Fighters song. “Burn Away” is big, loud and bombastic, with more than a hint of Grohl’s grunge years. I absolutely love the chorus (“We’ll burn away, burn away, burn away my pride”), as well as the guitar sound and the subtle effect on his voice. At nearly 8 minutes, “Come Back” is the epic album closer, moving from a stomping 4/4 beat in the verses to a splashy, arena-ready chorus (“I will come back…I will come back for you”). After the extended quiet section in the middle, with moody/folky acoustic guitar, it slowly builds back to the original rhythm. There are a handful of songs I haven’t mentioned. They all have qualities I enjoyed, but they often seemed like retreads of previous songs. Even though it was a commercial success, this album was not as well received as the first three based on some of the reviews I’ve read, and even the band members weren’t completely satisfied with it. However, at least half of these songs are as good anything they had recorded (even if they could’ve used some judicious editing), so I don’t want this to seem like a negative assessment. Just because it may not live up to the expectations of what came before it, it still stands on its own as a very good album with a number of great songs.
For album #5, In Your Honor (2005), Grohl and company decided to shake things up a bit by releasing a 2-CD collection split between one disc of heavy rock songs (CD 1) and one disc of acoustic performances (CD 2). The problem I had with the “rock” disc is that there’s not much diversity, and Grohl seems to be shredding his throat on many of the songs. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the disc, but it’s the lesser of the two for me, both in performance and songwriting. Most of my favorite songs on CD 1 show up in the second half of the disc. “Best Of You” was the big hit single, and it’s one of their best. It also features some of Grohl’s most inspirational lyrics about reaching your potential (“Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?”). “The Last Song” has a steady glam-rock beat in the verses and a typically catchy chorus (“This is the last song…that I will dedicate to you”). I wonder if this is about someone he respects but feels it’s time to move on (Kurt Cobain?), or perhaps an enemy for whom he’s wiping the slate clean. I like the bright sound & midtempo groove of “Resolve,” which is one of the few times this disc allows itself some space to breathe. It’s also the most melodic pop song here, especially the bridge (“One more year that you’re not here…”). “The Deepest Blues Are Black” is a big, loud, Stone Temple Pilots-style song. I love the groove…it features some cool drumming…and the interplay between strummed acoustic & chiming electric guitars. I didn’t love any of the other songs, but a few of them had parts that I enjoyed. “In Your Honor” has a great refrain of “Mine is yours, yours is mine…In your honor I would die tonight” along with tom-tom heavy drumming. “No Way Back” has a super tight arrangement and a great stop-start rhythm at “No…way…back…from…here.” I don’t love the raucous, non-melodic verses in “DOA,” but the chorus is great (“It’s a shame we have to die my dear, no one’s getting out of here alive, this time”). Album closer “End Over End” features the desert blues sound of Grohl associates Queens Of The Stone Age, especially during the intro. Once again they end an album with the longest song, but it never really develops or builds to a satisfying conclusion. I have a feeling this song would be a lot more enjoyable in concert.
CD 2, a.k.a. “the acoustic disc,” slowly became one of my favorite Foo Fighters albums. The first couple of times I played it I didn’t get much out of it, but with repeated listening a lot of the songs really grew on me. “Still” has hushed vocals and slow, slightly eerie plucked guitar, like a dark folk song. It slowly builds to a memorable hook (“Promise I will be forever yours”) and maintains a haunting atmosphere. “What If I Do?” is a personal highlight, with a lilting melody, perfectly recorded acoustic guitars, restrained percussion, and one of Grohl’s most heartfelt vocal performances, especially in the chorus (“What if I do, Lord? What if I don’t?”). The “Carolina, Caroline” refrain near the end is another wonderful hook. “Miracle,” which features John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin, as well as future Grohl project Them Crooked Vultures) on piano, is a slow-moving song with a steady groove and a wonderful chorus (“I got my hands on a miracle, ‘lieve it or not, hands on a miracle”). Petra Haden also adds some tasteful violin.
[Foo Fighters – “Miracle”]
John Paul Jones adds mandolin to “Another Round,” which also features a sweet harmonica solo by Danny Clinch. Here is another instantly memorable chorus (“Can you go another round? I will follow you down and out”), and overall the song reminds me of early Michael Penn (for anyone who might be familiar with his music). One of the most surprising songs is “Virginia Moon,” a piano-based jazz/lounge tune. The first couple of times I played it, I couldn’t help but think how much it sounded like a Norah Jones song, so imagine my surprise when I scanned the liner notes and discovered that she played piano and sang harmonies on this track. It’s unlike anything else they’ve recorded, and I can imagine their most rock-oriented fans being perplexed by this song. I love it, and I’m glad they’re willing to try out different styles.
The rest of the acoustic disc is extremely enjoyable, even if the songs don’t reach quite the same highs as the ones I’ve already mentioned. “Friend Of A Friend” was written when Grohl had just joined Nirvana, in 1990, and features observational lyrics apparently about his new bandmates. This is the only song here that just features Grohl, on vocals and acoustic guitar. I enjoyed the insistent rhythm and simple instrumentation on “On The Mend.” There’s a great hook at “I’m here and I’m on the mend, my friend,” and a nice lead acoustic guitar. “Cold Day In The Sun” was written & sung by Taylor Hawkins, and he does a great job on this rootsy song with vocals that recall Kiss’ Peter Criss (think “Hard Luck Woman”). It’s the most upbeat rock song on this disc. The album ends with “Razor,” featuring fast moving acoustic guitars that recall the British folk of Nick Drake, but Grohl’s vocals also reminded me of Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson, especially at “Sweet and divine, razor of mine…razorblade shine.” In Your Honor is a slightly mixed bag, but the acoustic disc is as good as it gets, and the rock disc includes enough keepers and only a few clunkers, so overall it was great fun getting to know it.
Considering how much I enjoyed the acoustic In Your Honor disc, the “unplugged” live album Skin And Bones (2006) was right up my alley. I don’t love every performance they included, and straight-ahead recordings of the existing acoustic songs (like “Another Round,” “Over And Out,” “Walking After You,” “Friend Of A Friend,” etc.) were a bit redundant, but some of the older songs that were re-worked for this format are the most enjoyable. Another complaint is that 9 of the 15 songs are 4-1/2 minutes or longer, so they occasionally overstay their welcome. Also, the song selection is heavily weighted towards In Your Honor and The Colour And The Shape, with 11 tracks from those albums (including one single b-side), so the other three albums are represented by only one track each, plus one song originally recorded by Nirvana. The album starts with In Your Honor’s final track, “Razor.” Beginning with such a mellow song was an interesting choice, and it sets the mood for the rest of the show. “Marigold,” the song originally recorded by Nirvana, showcases the soft/loud dynamics of Grohl’s earlier band, and it features a wonderful violin solo by Petra Haden (who also provides a lovely harmony vocal on the slowed down version of “Big Me”). “My Hero” benefits from the acoustic arrangement as it builds in intensity while retaining the “unplugged” feel. Hawkins’ “Cold Day In The Sun” has an even more Americana feel than the original version, reminding me of Steve Earle or The Jayhawks. “Skin And Bones” was originally a b-side which I hadn’t previously heard. It’s a moody country shuffle with subtle (Hammond?) organ and stark lyrics that seem to be about an addict. The epic “February Stars” may be even more powerful than the original, slowly building to a climax in just under 6 minutes. Skin And Bones is certainly not a definitive, career-spanning live album, but it’s still a fun listen and it might be even more enjoyable to watch the video version (I‘ll have to check out the DVD).
In my next post, I’ll wrap up the Foo Fighters catalog with their two most recent albums plus Grohl’s heavy metal side project from 2004. I remember enjoying all three of those albums when I first got them, but I’ve probably only listened to each of them a couple of times so I don’t know them very well. That will no longer be the case the next time you hear from me.