Half-Life – Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters aren’t the type of band you associate with breaking boundaries, but their career has seen them unleash eight studio albums that most of us will agree are pretty solid, with a couple that ascends to levels of greatness.  Also, as far as modern rock acts go, they don’t come much bigger.  Their prolific career has seen them rise to meteoric heights through the release of popular singles, hilarious music videos and a reputation for being some of the nicest dudes in the biz.  We don’t just want to support these guys because they know how to appeal to our stadium-sized sensibilities with almighty, but easily digestible, melodic rock, but they’re genuinely likable and good poster boys for music in general.  It’s also a testament to their talent that they were able to break out of the shadow of Nirvana and establish themselves as a huge deal in their own right, and at this point in time, you could argue that their legacy is just as magnificent.

With The Colour and the Shape having just turned 20 last week, we thought this would be the perfect time to look back on the band’s career so far by revisiting their studio albums.  As you probably know, the Foo’s aren’t a band who stray far from their path, but every album does have its own individual quirks which set it apart from the others, while still retaining the fundamental elements that their fans know and love.  They’re the definition of solid if unspectacular overall as an albums band for the most, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.

Foo Fighters (1995, Capitol/Roswell)

These days, Foo Fighters are so popular that every member of the collective is known to fans for their individual personalities and merits, making them so much more than the dudes who play in Dave Grohl’s band.  And while Grohl is undoubtedly the prominent figurehead of the five-piece, with a mainstream appeal that hasn’t hampered their success by any means, throughout the years the band has felt like a family, and with only two lineup changes throughout the course of their 22 year career, we’re pretty much used to all of them being together at this point. However, it all began as a solo venture for Grohl as a form of musical catharsis to help deal with the death of Kurt Cobain; a project recorded for the fun of it because he had some songs written and wanted to get back into the groove of making music.  It turned out pretty well.

For the self-titled debut, Grohl played all of the instruments by himself for the most part, and because of this, the album has a raw, garage appeal to it.  The tenacity, melodies, and hooks that have defined the band’s entire discography are present, but it’s an unpolished record and all the better for it.  Opening track “This is a Call’’ is typical ‘90s Foos anthem and easily the most accessible on the entire album besides “Big Me’’, which showcases the band at their most radio-friendly.  “Weenie Beenie’’ on the other hand is loud, guttural and abrasive, while “Watershed’’ has a punky rock n’ roll swagger to it that Texan nu-metallers The Union Underground would (probably unintentionally) channel on their banger “Friend Song’’ from their self-titled 2001 album.  Listen to both tracks and tell me they don’t sound similar.  The album is a confident mix of mid-tempo alternative rock and the occasional eruption of velocity, peppered with harmonies whilst retaining a charming homemade vibe throughout.

Foo Fighters is one of their top tier albums in this writer’s humble opinion.  While it’s a time capsule of the post-grunge sound that defined the ‘90s, you can hear the makings of Grohl establishing himself as a formidable force that would go on to take over the world again a couple of years later.  Only a couple of the tracks here are instantly memorable, but as an entire body of work, it’s one of their most cohesive and enjoyable.

The Colour and the Shape (1997, Capitol/Roswell)

Quite simply, their masterwork.

When the band entered the studio to record what they would hail as their ‘official’ debut, they did so with a point to prove.  Critics were expecting another post-grunge record, but the band set out to make something bigger that would solidify them as one of the world’s biggest rock bands.  The end result proved to be one of the defining rock albums of the entire decade, and one which remains a classic to this very day, arguably considered by most fans as the band’s finest hour to date.

The Colour and the Shape is a polished body of work and one that accentuates the balance between raucous rock and pop sheen that was buried under the lo-fi production on the previous album.  This is due in no part to bringing in Gil Norton as the producer who forced them to develop their pop sensibilities by making the harmonies sound clearer while pushing the band to their limit as performers and musicians.  This was the band’s coming-of-age and it launched them into rock’s stratosphere.  It also doesn’t hurt that the album contains a triple punch of singles that are now enshrined in rock glory forever:  “Monkey Wrench’’, “Everlong,’’ and “My Hero’’ are as good as it gets when it comes to timeless, immortal, world-conquering classics.  Most bands would have a successful career off the back of any one of those songs, but to have three on the same album is a testament to the Foos ability to craft good pop songs amid crunchy punk rock and garage-flavoured grunge.  However, there isn’t a single track on The Colour and the Shape that isn’t memorable in its own right; “See You’’ further demonstrates the band in pop mode to great effect, while “New Way Home’’ ends proceedings with a strong, hopeful, power message despite its melancholy tone.

The album recently turned 20 and it remains a remarkable achievement in the band’s career trajectory. And as far as mainstream rock albums made for the masses go, it hits the spot while still sounding like the work of a band remaining true to themselves.  The Colour and the Shape perfected the pop rock formula and gave it some punk rock grit, while also expanding the band’s sonic palette and showing that they were capable of a few surprises.

There is Nothing Left to Lose (1999, RCA/Roswell)

There is Nothing Left to Lose saw guitarist Franz Stahl fired from the band prior to recording, as well as a change of record label.  With only three members left at the time, Grohl decided to buy an empty house away from the party haven of Los Angeles and the band recorded the album in the basement without any outside interference.  The final product is a good ‘90s rock album to end the decade with.

The standout track on There is Nothing Left to Lose is “Learn to Fly’’ as it showcases the Foos at their best when crafting memorable hooks and singalong verses.  However, I personally find “Next Year’’ to be one of their career highlights, and it doesn’t hurt that it conjures up memories of the TV show Ed and, like the show, is evocative of peacefulness and sweetness.  “Breakout’’ is an energetic slab of melodic chaos, while “Generator’’ typifies the strong, single-worthy, but rather straightforward rock sound that permeates the entire album.

While overall it lacks the memorability of The Colour and the Shape and the rawness of their self-titled debut, it’s the product of a band who had matured, honed their craft and settled into their own skin.  I guess you could call it a comfort zone record, but at the same time, we listen to Foos for their simplicity and ability to create memorable, hook-driven arena rock.  There is Nothing Left to Lose continued Foos path further as a crowd-pleasing phenomenon, and that’s not always necessarily a bad thing.  And even though it’s still quintessentially Foos, it does sound different from its predecessors as well; no one has ever accused the band of breaking their set formula, but they have a knack for altering it without alienating the core elements which makes them identifiable.  In this case, the nature of the recording definitely had an impact, giving it somewhat of the homemade rawness present on their debut, but with the polished, clear production of their sophomore effort.

One by One (2002, RCA/Roswell)

One by One more or less set the precedent for the Foos albums of the millennium – at least up until their most recent release.  It’s straightforward, well-produced and tailor-made to cater to stadiums.  The singles are big and iconic, whereas the rest of the album contains some solid strong, albeit, forgettable filler with moments of aggressive energy.  It also further exemplifies their tendency to mature with every album, and while I would never call them dad rock, there is a reason why they’re one of the most popular bands on the planet for rockers of all age groups.

“All My Life’’ is a strong opener and it remains a staple of their live shows to this day.  It’s a memorable track and ticks all the boxes it should for sending fans into a frenzy at live shows while offering some reflective lyrical waxing from Grohl.  “Times Like These’’ is quite generic, but not in a way that’s detrimental either.  It’s one of their best songs.  The guitar melody is infectious and the chorus is anthemic and boasts quite a positive message that will resonate with anybody who’s ever entered a new relationship with some hesitancy.  Not to sound corny, but I think Grohl’s introspective lyrics are what keeps Foos feeling vital; they’re never going to break new ground and wildly experiment, but they write songs we can all relate to and present them in a way that’s easy to digest.

The band themselves don’t look back at the record fondly, but while it’s far from their best work, it’s still a solid outing nonetheless.  The strength of the singles alone makes it a worthy entry in the Foo Fighters canon, but it’s not the most essential to listen to from start ‘till finish either, and in this writer’s humble opinion, it’s probably their weakest.  That said, the band is so proficient at what they do, I don’t think “weakest’’  necessarily equates to bad when it comes to their output.  This album is merely the weakest of an impressive discography.

In Your Honor (2005, RCA/Roswell)

For me, In Your Honour is the third best entry in the band’s library.  It takes what’s good about them and makes it sound on a grander scale.  A double album featuring one side that’s solely guitar-heavy stompers and the other acoustic, it’s a confident body of work which showcases the band’s heavier and softer sides in a way that gives each element room to breathe and show off how good they are at both.  Furthermore, the first side is the heaviest the band has ever sounded to date, bringing some extra gnarl to what also contains some of their strongest, harmonious tracks.

The album opens with the quadruple knockout punches of “In Your Honour,’’ “No Way Back’’, “Best of You’’, and “D.O.A.’’  It comes out swinging off the bat, to say the least, and while it retains a consistent momentum throughout the first half, the second doesn’t quite live up to the scale of those songs (with the exception of “Resolve’’ which is one of the best tricks in their bag).  However, overall it’s still pretty damn good.  The acoustic side is good and contains some gems like “Still’’ and “On the Mend’’, and while every song is enjoyable, the album as a whole feels repetitious to listen to in a single sitting unless you’re reading or having a bubble bath or something.

Overall though, In Your Honour delivers the epic opus the band was always capable of and some of the tracks are the most gigantic sounding of their entire career up until now.  The fact that it contains five stonewall classic tracks is a feat that deserves to be commended as well, but when you consider the entire package, it falls short of being a classic album due to being just a tad overstuffed.  

Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace (2007, RCA/Roswell)

Echoes, Silence, Patience and, Grace is a damn fine album, but it’s the one record in their entire body of work that feels like they’re clocking in for another day at the office.  That’s not to say it’s bad: it’s the type of day at the office where you show up with baked goods for the whole office and raring to go for a productive day.  However, sometimes being in a job for awhile gets uninspiring, and even if you show up in good spirits and enjoy what you do, eventually each day is just the same as the others and it becomes easy to settle into a mundane routine.

Proceedings get under way with “The Pretender,’’ which is one of the band’s most popular singles.  In fact, it’s actually their most played on Spotify.  “Long Road to Ruin’’ is also massively popular, but it’s pretty standard stuff and lacks that special sizzle their other radio-made singles have. By the time “Come Alive’’ and “Stranger Things Have Happened’’ have played, the album feels like it’s entered a midpoint lull, but things pick up again with “Cheer Up, Boys.’’  “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners’’ channels some good ol’ Americana that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Deadwood soundtrack, and “Statues’’ is a decent coffee shop ballad.  

Echoes, Silence, Patience and, Grace explores the heavy/soft dynamics they have always been accustomed to, with focus placed on the latter and the former lacking the bite of previous efforts.  It’s a good record with some interesting stylistic choices, but at the same time, it also feels like a Foos album for the Train and Goo Goo Dolls crowd.  Not bad by any means, but it’s the sound of a band softened with middle age and catering to the fans who aged with them.

Wasting Light (2011, RCA/Roswell)

Wasting Light saw Pat Smear return to the band for the first time since his firing after The Colour and the Shape, making the unit a five-piece for the first time in their lengthy career.  It’s a return to rocking form in a way, providing that you’re the type of person who wanted them to get dirty again after the softer approach of Echoes, Silence, Patience and, Grace.

“Rope’’ and “Walk’’ delivered the weighty singles that we’ve come to know, love and expect from Foos albums, while “White Limo’’ showed that middle age hadn’t killed their ability to crank out a punk rock number with raspy screams.  That’s right, the daddy still knew how to bring the rawk.  “I Should Have Known’’ fleets into power ballad territory, but otherwise the album just prods along with the mid-tempo melodic rock they’ve perfected throughout the years.  There’s also an unexpected collaboration with Deadmau5, whose “Rope’’ remix is featured as an extra track.

Wasting Light sees the band doing business as usual, but it contains more diversity and surprises than its predecessor and marked a welcome return to the band’s stadium post-grunge roots.  “Walk’’ is as generic as a Foos song comes, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t anthemic and everything I love about the band.  They excel with singles, and I think this is the last one that was truly special.

Sonic Highways (2014, RCA/Roswell)

Sonic Highways is a star-studded affair which saw the band enlist the duties of some of rock music’s most iconic musicians, old and modern, to create a celebration of the genre’s heritage across different regions of the United States.  Featuring the guest talents of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Eagles’ Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr. Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and Grohl’s old pals from Scream, every track was recorded in a different city with a rich musical history and the record feels alive because of it.

I think by bringing fresh talents into the fold to collaborate, it gave the band a new lease of life.  The record is somewhat of a departure from previous releases, but it doesn’t stray far enough to be completely devoid of what makes the Foos who they are.  Opener “Something from Nothing’’ is probably the funkiest the band has ever sounded, but the forays into hard rock provide some variation and the solo fucking SHREDS.  “Subterranean’’ is one of the better softer tracks in their arsenal, and the backing vocals of Ben Gibbard lend are a good fit considering the song sounds like a crossover between traditional Foos and Death Cab.  However, “I Am a River’’ is the highlight, a stunning closing number aided by the beautiful strings of Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti and the Foos trademark melodic rock.  

Sonic Highways makes the Foos future feel open to fresh possibilities.  I doubt they’ll ever do anything that out of the blue, but if they showed anything with this album it’s that they’re still looking to implement new elements to their music after all these years to ensure it remains refreshing to an extent.  Sure, it’s not leftfield by any means, but there was a new lease of life and energy present in Sonic Highways that showed the band might have a few tricks up their sleeves for future releases.  Let’s just wait and see.  But if there’s one thing I do now it’s that Foos, while not the most exciting band on the planet to the seasoned music aficionado, always deliver satisfying records with at least one or two tracks that will stand the test of time.  As far as contemporary stadium rock acts go, there aren’t many better.

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