Foo Fighters - Wasting Light Review

Barring the presence of some sort of insect crawling its way past the sphincter and into the gastrointestinal nether region, you just can’t help but root for Foo Fighters. They’re likable, funny, humble, provide fist-pumping catharsis, and know how to have a good time while providing the same good time to their large fanbase. That’s not enough to make them a quality rock band, so lucky for them, they’ve also supplied an astonishingly (almost depressingly) high percentage of the really good mainstream rock gems of the last fifteen years. And that good will not only suited them but gave them an advantage against harder-to-please critics—their first few albums each had two or three mild/modest/mediocre tracks and the rest were great while nowadays they’re more inclined to release an album with two or three great tracks while the rest are mild/modest/mediocre.

 Yes, it’s tough to deny that they’ve been on a steady decline for at least a decade now, and though I still love them (more as a fan than an intellectual), the band’s seventh studio LP would have been their first major release since I started listening to them that stirred no palpable excitement in me. Would have been, you see, because then I discovered that Butch Vig was being brought on to produce; Butch Vig, as in “the guy who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind,” not to mention loads of other top-notch LPs from Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Urge Overkill. And the band had recently gone five-deep with the addition (or, rather, return) of another guitarist: Pat Smear, who was with Foo during their best two records, and was a touring member of Nirvana circa In Utero. Speaking of Nirvana, bassist Krist Novoselic is also stopping by to make a guest appearance—exhume a grave and you got yourself a full-blown reunion. A zombie plague may be needed for a good concert or studio time. Still, I’d go to that show at the risk of getting my brains eaten.

Of course, anyone expecting some sort of reemergence of the magic or the spark that fueled Nevermind is the cheerfully optimistic sort that I usually circumnavigate as best I can. After all, Dave Grohl is a fine songwriter, but he’s not in the same ballpark or even same zip code as Kurt Cobain. But is it unreasonable to hope (or even expect) something that returns them to the form they’ve been slowly wandering away from over the last decade? I’m unreasonable, even irrational, in my affection for this band but their last two studio albums were uneven and just barely satisfying. Too little juice is squeezed and too few melodies linger. More on that later.

Another announcement that stirred some anticipation in me was that this was going to be a “basement record,” one recorded at Grohl’s garage instead of his professional studio, and that it would be recorded on tape instead of on computers. However, I probably should have predicted that with Vig as chief engineer it wasn’t exactly going to get raw, rough and “real” (not that analog always equates to being unrefined; look at the Beatles). I never really bought accusations that he over-polished Cobain, and he certainly didn’t make Sonic Youth a headlining pop crew, but Garbage’s glossy manipulations insist that he’s no au naturel purist. And had I not known this little recording methodology factoid, I never would have guessed it to be so—Wasting Lightsounds just as clean, precise and smooth as anything the band has ever released. Even the guitars at their crunchiest, loudest and most distorted lack the cranky fuzz that might have taken some of these songs to the next plateau. It’s not that pop doesn’t ever work when buffed to a fine sheen, but most rock n’ roll thrives on the loose threads and scuff marks. Too much here sounds rigorously rehearsed and programmed. Not necessarily a bad thing, but that means the songs better be rousing and damn catchy.

In fact, Wasting Light sounds closest to a cross-pollination of two previous Foo discs: the first half of the In Your Honor double LP (a nearly endless barrage of loud, heavy and calculated guitar rock) and One by One (efficient pop melodies injected into the pummeling roar). Unfortunately, it also carries on one of the distracting traits shared by both—stadium-size sameness. It doesn’t matter that there are quiet parts and loud parts, cap tips to pop-punk and cap tips to metal; it’s all commercial-slick and built for arena hysteria. They’ve succeeded in this, ahem, venue before—several times, in fact—but over the long haul, is it too much to ask for something a little softer, a little stranger, a little rougher, a little more thoughtful or experimental or individual? It sounds like rock-by-committee, which even in Foo’s finely-formed committee’s hands, doesn’t inspire adulation from outsiders.

But the worst sin a group like Foo Fighters could commit is to fail to deliver the earworms. Their radio hit parade backlog speaks for itself—“Everlong,” “Monkey Wrench,” “All My Life,” “The Pretender,” “I’ll Stick Around,” “Best of You,” “My Hero,” “Low,” “Learn to Fly,” and on and on. But hardly anything really stands out in this collection. There are some quality chorus hooks on “Burning Bridges” and “Back & Forth” and the last two tracks offer some therapeutic release that should have been liberating. But even after nodding along and humming to the refrains of the former pair and resisting the urge not to scream along with Grohl when he bellows, “No, I cannot forgive you yet!” and, “I never want to die!” I felt no desire to immediately revisit them; the melodies vanished from my mind as soon as the next track clicked in and I didn’t really care why Grohl can’t find forgiveness at the moment or why he really doesn’t want to die.

But sentiment and meaning has always been a tricky area for the Foo. Grohl is a reliable but hardly exemplary lyricist—he swims in clichés and packages them efficiently, but rather than being vague with narratives or poetry, they’re usually just simple, familiar phrases locked into verse/meter constrictions (on “A Matter of Time”: “You're one to talk, the heart is a clock, just like a bomb it keeps on ticking away, counting down to detonate”). That said, at least the emotion, be it pain, anger, exhilaration, whatever, comes through very clearly—no inscrutable sulking or pretentious doodles here. Grohl’s simple vocal range doesn’t offer much gradient, but he’s still a terrific throat-shredding screamer almost fifteen years after first hollering through explosive ragers like “Wind Up” and “Enough Space.”

Not a lot sticks; it’s all fairly pleasant or even more, but I’ve yet to find one that makes me itch to repeat it immediately. This isn’t always a criticism since plenty of top shelf albums don’t have a grabby song that begs to be recycled, but Foo Fighters isn’t a band that thrives on ambitious songcraft or elusive lyricism or larger themes—they’re a down and dirty, meat and potatoes, lay it on the line kind of outfit with great instincts and infectious energy. They don’t take a lot of risks and don’t completely miss very often (the harshest words that can be said about the weakest songs in their catalog are “trite” or “bland” or “forgettable”—not exactly damnation). One at a time, several have their charms—in addition to the kinetic “Burning Bridges,” “Back & Forth” and the two last tracks (“I Should Have Known,” which is where Novoselic shows up, and “Walk”), “Arlandria” has an appealing refrain melody and “Rope” is a decent first single (but not up to the group’s typically high quality of album first singles). Yet Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould is wasted on “Dear Rosemary”—unremarkable tune, not playing to his strengths as a guitarist, and folding his back-up vocals underneath Grohl’s yelp—“These Days” is a rather flat ballad-ish rocker in a “Times Like These” vein, and both “A Matter of Time” and “Miss the Misery” are pretty “trite, bland and forgettable.” The closest to greatness sounds rather un-Foo-ish—the snaking metallic riffs of “White Limo” is more akin to Probot or Queens of the Stone Age (metal legend Lemmy even shows up in the music video, but doesn’t guest on the recording), and the vocals are distorted in a “Weenie Beenie” way. It’s not an anthemic arena-ready song like nearly every other song is, so it’s a little screwy that I suspect I’d be pounding my fist and banging my head hardest to that one if I heard it live.

After hit-and-miss acoustic enterprises on the live Skin and Bones and the second half of In Your Honor as well as the disappointing stab at variety on Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, which featured some of the blandest and “safest” rock the group has ever recorded, many will likely herald Wasting Light as a “return to form.” They certainly let the rawk flag wave higher and bolder than in recent years, and despite a few hiccups, it’s a polished and enjoyable outing overall. I suspect most of these songs will improve onstage, the setting where the band excites and exorcises best, but even if it’s a little too sleek and calculated, Foo remains head-and-shoulders above almost everyone else getting mainstream rock radio play anymore. Wasting Light is sorta catchy, sorta consistent, sorta endearing. So, sorta good. It really depends on expectations and what “spinning the wheels” means to each listener.

 

"Wasting Light" is on sale April 12, 2011 from RCA.

May
09
2011
Matt Medlock

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