Foo Fighters’ sixth studio album is a transitional rather than definitive piece of work, but one that sees them growing older with 'patience and grace'.
In Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age rock fable Almost Famous, the Lester Bangs character advises cub journalist William Miller to pitch his Stillwater profile to Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres as a think piece on a mediocre band straining to achieve greatness. Watching that film again recently I couldn’t help but think of Foo Fighters – not because they’re a mediocre band, but rather their career arc bears out an intrinsically All-American will-to-power work ethic: honest long-haired johns busting their humps to rise above the ordinary.
If the Foos’ one-man-band debut was a modest but promising affair, the 1997 follow-up The Colour & The Shape saw Dave Grohl pull out all the stops, abandon the original sessions, retrack the drums himself and employ one-time Pixies producer Gil Norton to play drill sergeant. It paid off in spades, yielding a set of songs equal to the Herculean performances.
Again, following the patchy One By One album a few years back, the band staged a mini-intervention, hauled themselves up by their bootstraps and conceived of the In Your Honor double set as a Physical Graffiti style magnum opus. The result played like a speeded up Rocky Balboa training sequence, with the quartet audibly psyching themselves towards a two-hour victory lap. Earlier this summer, the band’s Live Earth set seemed a calculated attempt to reprise Queen at Live Aid; watching ‘There Goes My Hero’ light up Wembley, I pitied the fools who had to follow them onstage.
So it goes with Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. Norton has been reinstated behind the desk, and the band show no sign of slacking. The opening tune and lead-off single ‘The Pretender’ is prime Grohl beef: a ‘Stairway To Heaven’/‘Dream On’ intro detonated by a crushingly tight rhythm track, wailing lead lines and take-no-prisoners chorus. That the tune is a self-conscious rewrite of ‘All My Life’’s eruptive dynamics and Beavis & Butthead riffs doesn’t render it any less gratifying. Foo Fighters are the thinking man’s bonehead stadium band, Kiss fronted by Bob Mould. At least half the tunes on ESP&C repeat this formula, including ‘Let It Die’, ‘Erase/Replace’ and ‘Long Road To Ruin’, the latter being the kind of furrowed-browed but feelgood melody Grohl can seemingly knock off in his sleep, reinforced by arena-scaled chord changes and the class of slick guitar solo Mike Campbell used to embellish Tom Petty’s finer tunes.
Occasionally, as on the (wonderfully titled) ‘Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make-Up Is Running)’ or ‘But, Honestly’, the formula falls flat, but overall the band have taken enough chances to avoid xeroxing themselves out of focus. ‘Come Alive’ is a 3/4 blues ballad spiced with low grade psychedelia and pastoral Page arpeggios, ‘Stranger Things Have Happened’ a roadworn, dustily acoustic highway hymn that could be Blackfoot or Lynyrd Skynyrd redux, and ‘Summer’s End’ a rollicking desert song that recalls no one so much as QOTSA.
More surprisingly, ‘The Ballad Of The Beaconsfield Miners’ is a ‘Black Mountain Side’-with-banjo instrumental dedicated to the Tasmanian miners who requested an iPod loaded with FF tunes to get them through five days trapped a kilometre below the surface of the earth.
But it’s the closing suite that surprises most. ‘Statues’ could be Rundgren or McCartney knocking out piano ballads down on the farm with George Harrison on slide, embellished by an effortless and articulate lyric (“We’re just ordinary people/You and me/Time will turn us into statues/Eventually”), while the closing ‘Home’ snapshots Dave in 15 years time as a shaggy, bearded and bulked-up Neil Young type elder statesman: “People I’ve loved, I have no regrets/Some I remember, some I forget/Some of them living, some of them dead/All I want/Is to be home”.
Foo Fighters’ sixth studio album is a transitional rather than definitive piece of work, but one that sees them growing older with, if not echoes and silence, then patience and grace.
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