Wednesday, September 20, 2017

album review: 'concrete and gold' by foo fighters

So there was an article written by veteran music journalist Steven Hyden I was reading that encompassed a lot of my feelings about the Foo Fighters quite aptly, in that they were a band that became spokesmen for modern rock radio... despite not really putting out critically acclaimed rock records. It's actually a little bit alarming, when you think about it: this is a band where it's been twenty years since they released what many would consider their best record The Color And The Shape, and ever since then? Yeah, some dependable singles but beyond that most people don't celebrate Foo Fighters records as album statements in the same way they would in rock's heyday. And you can make all sorts of wild extrapolations as to whether the decline of rock in mainstream culture is linked to its most recognizable act only being pretty good instead of exceptional, but at the end of the day, while I might enjoy parts of a Foo Fighters record, odds are I won't remember much of it beyond a few choice cuts.

And all the buzz coming out of Concrete and Gold wasn't exactly helping my fears here. Their touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee was finally upgraded to full band status, but with rumors suggesting that this was going to be a poppier record with producer Greg Kurstin didn't exactly raise my confidence, especially when the reviews were suggesting that they weren't pushing the boundaries as much as they had with Sonic Highways - and even that, that was a pretty reserved record in terms of experimentation. And when you are nine records into a career that's spanned multiple decades with an established fanbase, especially with rock radio continuing to feel irrelevant to modern pop culture, they had nothing to lose by coloring outside the lines, especially as Dave Grohl was always going to ensure the Foo Fighters didn't lose their trademark sound and intensity. But okay, does Concrete And Gold deliver?

Here's the thing: what makes Concrete And Gold odd for me to talk about is that my expectations going in were almost completely wrong, because it definitely feels more experimental in terms of venturing outside of the established Foo Fighters comfort zone. Now granted, it's the sort of tonal choice that seems completely obvious given Dave Grohl's love for classic rock acts, and if he's going to opt for a stronger melodic focus, it makes sense that he's going to try and emulate those late 60s records, right at the intersection point of where psychedelic tendencies twisted into rootsier, rougher hard rock. And yet the exasperating part is that they did this with a set of compositions that would not rank among their best, and when you start digging into the details, more awkward and less excusable examples of indulgence begin cropping up, and when the songs aren't there to support it, you've got a problem.

So to explain this, I think we have to start with the shift in sound, because at the end of the day, this really is a Foo Fighters record in terms of its compositional style: chunky riffs, grooves that can feel a bit perfunctory, some pop-leaning bombastic elements that build to huge hooks, no consistent focus on solos but that's fine when you're chasing the big accessible singles, and Dave Grohl bringing one of the most impressive and expressive vocal ranges in mainstream rock to howl through lyrics that always tend to trend a little more abstract than they should. And outside of a few more songs that lean in acoustic ballad territory like 'Dirty Water' and 'Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)', from a compositional standpoint my biggest complaint is that I wish there were a few more hooks that let Grohl really cut loose with his howls, but even if he had, how much it would ultimately matter takes us to the real issue on this record: production. Look, I've been a mild apologist for Greg Kurstin over the years, but he has a bad habit of either washing out the mix with reverb or emphasizing texture in the rhythm pickups over actual melody, and the latter is definitely the case here. Take 'Run', a song that I desperately wanted to like but the flattened buzzy guitar line and filters layered on top of Grohl's screams felt so unnecessary, especially when we were getting nothing seriously meaty in the low end to support it. 'The Sky Is A Neighborhood' actually wound up growing on me thanks to the multi-tracked hook, but who thought that gummy staccato progression worked for a groove, even with the subtle strings embellishments? And 'La Dee Da' has a similar problem: I actually dug the buzzy grind of the song with the horns to punch up the garish sarcasm of the track, but without a thicker rhythm section, the song just doesn't have the same groove to it.

But what's frustrating is that this is inconsistent. Two songs later you get the album highlight 'Arrows', and yeah, the warping guitars layers and mellotron accents are nothing revolutionary, but there's actual support to the melodic groove - one of the few examples where said pseudo-psychedelic vibes feel more than tacked on, like the compression on the guitars and blocky drum pickup of 'Make It Right'. Similar case for 'Sunday Rain' - sure, it's a blatant Beatles riff to the point of getting Paul McCartney on drums, but the phaser effects on the guitars at least fit with the groove, but then for some reason they pitch Dave Grohl's voice up presumably fit better, and it feels even more like a fragile imitation. At least 'Dirty Water' tried to transition to a harder rock edge... even if the vocals never do, and the title track at least tried to push for a rougher progressive metal edge with the heavy, groaning riffs, but it's less Sabbath or Pink Floyd and more reminiscent of an unremarkable mid-90s wannabe with good atmosphere but little satisfying tune. Which, funnily enough, actually turns out to be a similar issue for the song previous 'The Line'... which with its minor tones and buzzy lack of clear melody, might be the definition of forgettable Foo Fighters album filler. And that's before you get to the guest stars on this thing and a feeling that something with significantly more power could have been assembled. You get Justin Timberlake on 'Make It Right' and only have him sing back-up, or Alison Mosshart of the Dead Weather on both 'La Dee Da' and 'The Sky Is A Neighborhood and give her nothing substantial to do? You got Paul McCartney on songs that are plainly aping classic Beatles, and he doesn't even sing? The one guest star who seemed to be allowed to step up was Shawn Stockman of Boyz 2 Men on the title track, but even then, given how plodding the riffs are you have to wonder whether a stronger hook could have made better use of his heavily overdubbed choral vocals.

But then we get to the content and themes - and look, I've made no secret that my general criteria for political albums are the three P's: power, precision, and populism. And while you could argue that the Foo Fighters get populism right out of the gate courtesy of their tenure in modern rock, the political arc of this record does it no favors... or at least from what you can tell. That's the thing: according to interviews Grohl did intend for this record to have an arc, from the opening tracks encouraging some to get involved and active... only for figureheads to lead them astray and eventually completely run out of answers, with no superhero to come and save them, instead requiring those people to dig deep and keep fighting against the tide; at the end of the day, their roots run deeper. It's a songwriting tradition, at least in terms of broad themes, that has its roots in the heartland rock of John Mellencamp or Springsteem, especially with the lack of a clean answer, but without the significant storytelling and details, I'm left feeling that these songs don't cut with the same power. And that's before we get moments of tonal dissonance that don't nearly work as well as they seem to think, the worst being 'Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)', which tries to go for a Simon & Garfunkel-esque light folk treatment of facing no hope or relief, and there's just not enough to the writing to make it feel anything beyond awkward and badly placed in context, especially right after the righteous fury of 'Arrows'. And it's not like Grohl and crew weren't even trying for something here: not only did they say they were - and the subtext is pretty blisteringly obvious - you don't load a song like 'La Dee Da' with the language you do if you're not trying to provoke a reaction. But the more I listened to this record the more I just found the arc scattershot, just shy of saying something that truly had weight with real detail or flair.

But again, the Foo Fighters are not an album band - they're best known for rock singles that smash onto the radio with real populist power, not making that broader thematic statement. Maybe that's why any arc here feels tenuous, an effort for something that's out of the Foo Fighters' comfort zone beyond cribbing from rock history for enough flourishes to keep things interesting. But it doesn't carry a lot of weight for me - not a bad project, mind you, but it's not playing to any of their strengths and makes me wish the band was more focused if they wanted to deliver the righteous statement along with the singles you knew the band would nail. But as a whole here... 6/10, really only for fans of the band at this point, at least for me. It's got its moments, but I'd like to see those arrows actually hit a bullseye, not just in the nearby postal code.

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