Thursday, November 3, 2011

Foo Fighters: Wasting Light

I don't expect this to be one of my deeper, more thoughtful reviews. Good hard guitar rock isn't meant to be examined, but felt. It either grabs you or it doesn't, and while there are obvious traits a great rock album should exhibit, it's ultimately that ineffable, visceral feeling that determines whether it has done its job properly. It's funny. Biased as I am, bad rock is as painful to me as a bad example of any genre, and every generation goes through its uninspired radio hits. But a good rock album like this feels like a real achievement. Not because it's groundbreaking -- in fact, there's a surplus of precedent for an album like Wasting Light -- but because it manages to work its influence into something that is both new and classic-sounding. The miracle of Wasting Light isn't that there's a rock album that sounds like this in 2011. It's that just two years ago, Foo Fighters released their greatest hits covering a decade and a half of recording. That seemed like a pretty concise summing up of their career and underlined how consistent they've been, how nicely "I'll Stick Around" (actually omitted from the Greatest Hits) or "Monkey Wrench" sits next to "Best Of You." The miracle is that two years later they release an album of original material that creates an equally enjoyable listening experience in and of itself -- that takes all the best parts of the Foo Fighters sound and works them for all they're worth.

It's perfectly conventional and that's perfectly all right. Awesome, in fact, because when all the gears are in place, the rock machine is an incredible one to behold. Kurt Cobain mused (bluntly and not wrongly) that every song was just "verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bad solo, chorus." Grohl is a fair bit more nuanced about it, knowing exactly what riffs best introduce each songs, how to use a prechorus as a teaser to the chorus, and occasionally, write a really good lyric. The dude seems, on this album to be a veritable fountain of hooks, and they're damn sharp. They hit that center of your brain that makes you want to absorb the song, and keep listening to the album. And then the album performs the enviable feat of never letting up, over 11 songs that never cause the listener's interest to wane, from the opening chunk of "Bridge Burning" to the last note of "Walk." I'm often wary of songwriting that seems to obviously hooky, but to be fair, Grohl & Co. seem to come by it honestly. the stretch of "You got a lotta neee-eeee-eeee-eee-eeeerve" in "Back & Forth" uses the kind of descent (or some musical theory term) you would avoid if you were trying to write a hit, but it grabs exactly how it's supposed to. In fact, I find it interesting that for radio singles, they led with a couple of the less obvious hits. "Rope" is pretty manic, with its skittering guitars, droning verse and panicked chorus. "Walk," the second single, starts off seeming like it might be either a ballad or a rewrite of "Learn to Fly," but instead of rising and falling, it just keeps rising, until everything seems to collapse in on itself due to excessive rockitude, and Grohl's voice becomes a wail to rival Steven Tyler or Axl Rose as the needle gets buried in the red. They were both unlikely commercial singles, but have real character, and in the context of the album, stand out even further than the more hooky, catchy, ones.

The scream, of course, had previously been on display on the breakneck "White Limo," itself sounding largely like an earlier Queens of the Stone Age track. These, with the bluesy "I Should Have Known," provide alternative reference points for the character of the band and the album, beyond "able to produce catchy-as-fuck hard rock songs at the drop of a hat." When these moments come out, they overpower the surrounding tracks, but wind up as accessories to the real story of the album which is, as I've previously mentioned, all those fucking hooks!

Grohl's voice has become one of the great rock vocals. He can sing just enough, he can grumble and scream. He's got both the badass swagger and the vulnerability, and he sounds wiser with age but not jaded or exhausted. Many, maybe even all of the songs, deal with the passage of time, letting go of the past, forgiving, forgetting, regretting, lamenting, and looking toward the future. It's mature, but not stodgy, and would be a great album for a teenager to get his hands on, but an older listener will find it just right too. It carries a weight, and works as a great example of how good rock can sound when you take care over it, when you have a good intuition with your instruments. Grohl the former drummer can structure a song according to its rhythm, and has a great bunch of bandmates carrying it out; Taylor Hawkins may in fact be the best drummer in rock. But I don't know much about drumming. Or guitarring, for that matter. All I know is that certain flourishes in "Dear Rosemary" and "Arlandria" (perhaps the most masterful track on the piece) could probably be traced to that, and as a result give the album a lot of heart and soul to back up the world-beating riffage.

So... why does it work? Or how? How do they escape the morass of post-grunge radio rock lameness, without swerving too hard in the other direction (even on "White Limo")? If you had played me the greatest hits, and said "Sure, this band is good, but what is it they are missing?" I probably would not have said "Another guitarist." And yet, on Wasting Light, you have Grohl, Chris Shiflett, and a returning Pat Smear, all credited with "lead and rhythm guitars." And that definitely seems to make a difference, fleshing out and defining the sound without making it seem crowded, somehow. You can hear three guitars (along with the bass and drums!) at various points on the album, sometimes in harmony, sometimes doing their own thing. It could be a mess. Instead, every guitar knows where to go to keep the song from getting pedestrian, keeping the rock alive and breathing by adding that extra element, creating that unstoppable force of rock.

The thing is, these are all exceptionally talented musicians working on the same page. Smear was in punk bands a decade before his brief tenure in Nirvana. Shiflett also plays in the greatest cover band in the world, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes. They know the steps and they haven't grown tired of playing them. Between the five of them, they've lived the lifetimes of approximately seventeen musicians, and are, in 2011, among the most invigorated bands out there. There are a lot of traps inherent in creating an album like this, and they avoid them all. Each track is a gem and fits perfectly with the next. By the time you get to "A Matter of Time" and "Miss the Misery" you might be too thoroughly absorbed to even notice how long you've been listening.

This is the beauty of a great rock album. All the pieces seem familiar enough, but when you get them all together in the right way, in just unique enough a way to sound fresh, it's a thing of beauty. Guys, this album is pretty much the reason people still learn guitar.

Buy this album now: iTunes // //

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