Monday, May 5, 2014

In Defense Of: Foo Fighters

This In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Jon Mann.

Nirvana + Germs/Adolescents + Sunny Day Real Estate
= Something You Should Probably Listen To
Out of an all-abiding love for the music of Run-D.M.C., I briefly watched the MTV reality show Run’s House (2005-2009).  Perhaps the funniest single moment on the show occurred during an episode where Run was being constantly annoyed by his teenage son and daughter asking him for things. In response, Run started smiling maniacally and shouting the refrain from “Best of You” by the Foo Fighters whenever they would come around, an act that consisted of Run pounding on whatever piece of furniture was closest to him with the flat of his hand while shouting “THE BEST! THE BEST! THE BEST! THE BEST!” until his kids broke off laughing or stormed away angrily.

At first flush, the joke operated on Run’s charisma and his kids’ reactions, but it also worked because by 2005, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s famous intensity had become ripe for parody. Grohl’s sense of rock urgency, from his teenage love of punk rock and cult metal in the 1980s through his tenure as the drummer for Nirvana in the 1990s, had by the mid-2000s come to be read as something practiced, mainstream, and potentially insincere among many rock listeners and critics.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m one of those listeners. Grohl’s music these days seems to suffer from a production aesthetic that compromises his often strong and dynamic songwriting. It wasn’t always that way. It occurred to me recently that, if you were born, say, in the late '80s or beyond, Foo Fighters have always been pretty tame and — at times — outright crap, and their current music hasn’t given you any reason to dig deeper. Allow me.

1995’s eponymous Foo Fighters is a great album front-to-back, and every instrument is played by Grohl. As far as I'm concerned, there's no filler on that record. While Grohl reportedly threw the lyrics together rapidly in the days leading up to recording — understandably anxious about exposing himself emotionally in the wake of his friend and collaborator’s suicide — the songs had been gestating musically since his time in Nirvana.  While detractors point to the loud-soft-loud dynamic of songs like “I’ll Stick Around” as a too-close mirroring of classic Nirvana tracks, I’d argue that Grohl would have had to be very dense not to appreciate Cobain’s brilliant songwriting and very stupid not to absorb as much of it as he could while the two played together.

That said, if “I’ll Stick Around” does sound like a Nirvana song, well — thank god — because there were surely enough musical vultures claiming Cobain’s influence in the years following his death, and at least Grohl had the right. Inspired by his and Krist Novoselic’s battle with Courtney Love over legal control of Nirvana’s songs, Grohl’s drums, guitars, and refrain ("I don't owe you anything") rage righteously in “I’ll Stick Around."

Other rockers show Grohl's range: the enormous, feedback-drenched “Alone + Easy Target”; the charging “Good Grief”; the heavy, plodding “X-Static”; the Mike Watt-inspired tribute “Wattershed”, in which Grohl shreds through lyrics about his love of classic punk rock. The use of distortion-laden vocals on “Weenie Beenie” is innovative and — though they make Grohl almost entirely incoherent — they don’t diminish the emotional impact of his howling; you feel the tightness in your chest. There are also a handful of softer songs that show Grohl early on as being capable of the pop sensibility that has ultimately led to Foo Fighters becoming one of the biggest acts in the world. “This Is a Call” is a light, fun song that still carries a surprising rock edge, and “Big Me” provides a sweet respite between “I’ll Stick Around” and “Alone + Easy Target”.

By 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, Grohl had departed significantly from the Nirvana sound and Cobain's style. While still raucous and dynamic, a hit like “Monkey Wrench” reached toward a more driving rock sound with punchy, riffing guitars. “Hey, Johnny Park!” and “My Hero” contain as solid a loud-soft-loud structure as anything on Foo Fighters, and “Everlong” is frankly the strongest song Grohl ever wrote. I don’t care that OK Computer or Life After Death came out that year; “Everlong” will always be my favorite song of 1997. It’s a driving, emotionally powerful song that grabs you by the guts, and it features a hilarious Michel Gondry-directed music video that I loved as a teenager and still laugh at now.

For that matter, if you got this far without watching the video for “Big Me” (linked above), it’s a funny candy commercial parody reflecting the saccharine-pop nature of the song itself. I can remember thinking that, in the wake of much of grunge’s unfortunate tendency toward cloying morality and self-flagellation, the tongue-and-cheek nature of Grohl’s self-presentation was a breath of fresh air. The Foos’ cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” as a b-side to “My Hero” gives a perfect example: famous for its enormous, blaring saxophone riff, Grohl cleverly recognized the loud-soft-loud dynamic of Rafferty’s classic cut and converted the horn part into a soaring guitar line for the rock set.

While I paid significantly less attention to Foo Fighters after Colour and the Shape, that doesn’t mean that Grohl lost his penchant for writing rock and roll songs. “Stacked Actors” from 1999’s There is Nothing Left to Lose is pretty gnarly, and starts with a thick, throaty fuzz sound that would make some Brooklyn gearheads drool. “All My Life” off of 2002’s One By One showed the positive influence of Grohl’s tenure in Queens of the Stone Age with its Josh Homme-style chugging, brooding guitars, and — while it's not my favorite Foo Fighters single by any stretch — it’s no easy task to write a 7/8 time signature into a song as catchy, universal, and massively
popular in both electric and acoustic versions as Grohl did with “Times Like These”. The guy's got a terrific pop sensibility.

But in the end, rock and roll often comes down to a gut check, and I’m always gonna be a sucker for earnest, driving music. If that’s also your thing, Grohl has given us two albums and a handful of additional tracks in which that tendency dominates. When I was a kid, before I started buying records, I can remember sitting around, just waiting by the radio for “Alone + Easy Target” to come on, and it’s a drag to think that a next generation of rock listeners could miss it entirely. Maybe Grohl's sound got tame down the stretch, but you dodge early Foo Fighters at your own risk.

— JM

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Goo Goo Dolls 
Chris Buckridge, In Defense Of: Gin Blossoms 

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