Released By Some Big Label on September 15th, 2017
Reviewed by Andy “Dinger” Beresky
So….I’ve been asked to review the new Foo Fighters record. Taste Nation owner Matthew Thomas prefaced our conversation around the possibility of this review happening by saying that he’d talked to another reviewer he’s friends with, and this particular guy had said that “it was actually pretty good.”
Okay – let’s just take a moment right here to talk about the significance of this statement. What does it actually mean that in order for folks in our business to take a band seriously, we need to be told that the record is “actually good” in advance? What does that say about Foo Fighters, and about the way we operate in the review business?
In full disclosure, I’ve never been a Foo Fighters fan. Okay, there was this one song, on one album that they released in the early 2000’s that I actually enjoyed (the song was “Come Back” from the album One By One, thanks Googles!!), though that’s really about it. I actually bought the album, because someone told me that it was “actually good”, then I sold it because I never really listened to it more than a handful of times or appreciated it beyond that one song. I can, however, appreciate Dave Grohl’s contributions to the canon of punk and rock n’ roll, obviously with Nirvana, though also with Scream. And I recognize his contributions to our little scene itself: when he took over drumming duties on the third Queens Of The Stone Age album, and with his Probot record, which brought some of the biggest movers and shakers in the underground metal scene into the limelight by virtue of Grohl’s musical reputation. And I believe that it’s Grohl’s reputation that has prompted the writing of this review – I may not be a Foo Fighters fan, though I recognize that in an industry filled with some real d-bags, he doesn’t seem like a total asshole. He seems earnest and passionate, hell, even humble….well, as humble as a guy in his position can be. Aside from that, I do want to recognize his contributions beyond Foo Fighters, and let’s face it – Foo Fighters are a mainstream alternative radio rock band with a huge following and fan base.
Also, the album ACTUALLY is good, by mainstream alternative radio rock standards. That’s what we’re really talking about in the underground when we say that a record of this stature is “good” – we’re saying that it has at least something that appeals to those whose tastes tend to either veer away from the mainstream, or who are perpetually in search of something beyond the mainstream. We’re saying that it’s not run of the mill radio swill, and I’d be tempted to dismiss much of Foo Fighter’s catalog as that kind of fluff. That’s not entirely the case this time around. In regards to reaching beyond the mainstream norms, Concrete And Gold delivers the goods, ironically by embracing the mainstream norms.
Bear in mind, I’m not 100% behind it. Grohl’s grandiose statement that its a combination of Sgt. Peppers and Motorhead is patently absurd. I’m not fully endorsing the Foo Fighters as the second coming, nor am I hailing this album as the one that’s going to “save rock and roll.” There’s some critics who love to drop those kinds of statements; always have been. I remember in the “alternative 90’s”, when Fig Dish released That’s What Love Songs Often Do. Great album, you should pick it up if you like 90’s guitar driven alt rock. It’s a beauty, eh. I like it well enough, I still own my original CD copy and it’s gotten a lot of repeat plays over the years. They managed to get a single on the radio that was pretty decent, though it didn’t make much of an over all impact. My point is, I read this one review of the album in Spin Magazine or some other big name rag, that praised it with outrageous hyperbole and bold prophesy, saying that in 10 years we’d be referencing Fig Dish as a household name, that we’d be comparing all other similar bands to them, and saying things like “oh another band that sounds just like Fig Dish.”
Obviously none of these things came to pass. Granted, we’re talking about the post-Nirvana 90’s, where everyone in the industry was both eager and unable to recognize the “next big thing” in the wake of Nevermind’s surprising impact and legacy. I’d like to think that we can all agree that the conditions in the music industry of the time were what made Nirvana’s meteoric rise from promising indie rockers to colossal megastars possible, and that those conditions are no more. Everything about the music industry has changed, and things will never go back to how they were. The other key ingredient in Nirvana’s success, that’s more nebulous and harder to define, was their ability to take all of the angst and alienation that our generation felt after the impact of the 1980’s, and channel that into an album that succinctly and directly addressed to how many of us were feeling. That’s what gave “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it’s anthemic quality and lasting resonance – at the time it DID smell exactly like teen spirit. Not the cheap, superficial spray that simply masked what lies underneath: the lyrics, jagged power chords, dynamics, even the simply chorused solo that echoed the song’s main melody cut right through all the glitzy and glossed wool that had been perpetually pulled over our eyes during the 80’s.
I bring this all up because simply making an album that’s “actually good” isn’t going to have the same impact; it’s not going to magically save rock and roll from the vapid auto-tuned pop ditties and overproduced pop country that dominate the airwaves. Lots of folks would love to see that, I get it. Part of me would love to see that as well. The stark reality is that it’s not 1992, and this isn’t Nevermind. It’s Concrete and Gold, and much like that long-lost Fig Dish album, we’re not going to be saying “oh another band that’s trying to sound like Foo Fighters on Concrete and Gold” in 10 years.
Part of what makes this album actually good is its over-the-top production. Instead of rebelling against the machine and recording a raw, stripped down rock album, as his prior outfit did with In Utero, Grohl opts for the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. It makes sense, since Foo Fighters have basically pumped out pop-rock since their inception. This is as overproduced as anything that Taylor Swift has ever recorded. That’s actually not a bad thing, as it makes an otherwise milk toast band sound pretty peaches and cream. It’s got plenty of layers and nuance, little touches here and there that really make the album shimmer and shine. Grohl and company have definitely made excellent use of their studio time and a veritable “who’s who” list of special guests (look them up), and I can appreciate the album solely on that level.
What really makes the record work better than prior Foo releases is that it feels more album oriented to me. It showcases a chance to explore music within the context of a studio, rather than just to write a collection of hit songs. Sure, there are obvious singles; I guess the second track (after a brief but bombastic intro track), “Run”, is the first single off the album. It’s the obvious choice. It’s upbeat and catchy with a huge, hook laden chorus followed by a crunchy, remotely heavy two note riff and harsh screams that will make those whose musical tastes gravitate towards modern rock radio pronounce “Wow! Grohl’s got his edge back!! He’s angry.” Yeah, sure he does….it’s a pretty transparent ploy, and I’m sure it will be lauded and successful in its re-branding effort, thanks to sly marketing campaigns, plenty of PR, and the credulous naive, gullible, and downright disingenuous critics at more “respectable” music rags.
The rest of the album has its moments, its ups and downs. “Make It Right” has a funky/fun guitar riff that’s akin to what Queens Of The Stone Age are doing. “La Dee Da” also reminds me a bit of QOTSA, though Josh Homme and company are much quirkier in terms of songwriting and instrumentation. “The Line” sounds like a classic Foo Fighters track, simple, non-offensive guitar driven rock, treated to the production standards of modern pop. “Dirty Water” is similar, although it’s more subdued, like the kind of track a band would release as their third MTV video in the 90’s daze of Alternative Nation after their first two hard-hitting singles. These songs, though unremarkable, are at least coherent – I’m not sure what Grohl was thinking with “The Sky Is a Neighborhood”. The composition and arrangement make about as much sense as the song title, and his attempts to write “political” lyrics are frankly embarrassingly disconnected from the zeitgeist. His weak, equivocal words don’t capture any spirit of our current age, they simply smell like Axe body spray. “Sunday Rain” is a fucking mess; the intro has some bluesy licks before the verse uses a reggae styled downbeat/offbeat and keyboard swirls underneath the overproduced vocals, which seem an attempt at Grohl sounding “soulful.” Instead it’s pure cliche heaped upon cliche.
It’s actually the more somber, understated songs that I prefer. “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)” sounds like a bar room ready drinking song, and although there’s much better music I’d prefer to have a beer to, it stands out as a stronger track, as does the title track, which finishes the album on a melancholy note, with drawn out passages of slow, longingly over-saturated guitars and moody vocals….
I don’t know folks. Sure, this album is “actually good” in that it’s not totally boring and takes some unexpected turns, which I think is largely a product of the modern pop production combined with some actual ambition on Grohl’s part to push himself outside of the typical verse/chorus/verse format that’s par for the Foo Fighter course. It’s also not going to have very much replay value for me, nor is it going to save rock and roll. Plus, Taylor Swift’s last album was much better.