The Foo Fighters Help 2011 in Its Effort to Sound as Much Like the 1990s as Possible

Off the top of my head, I can think of two musical performers for whom I have high hopes, despite the fact that they have disappointed me a lot over the last few years. The first is Elvis Costello, who almost had me at Momofuku and then lost me again at Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. I have been told that last year’s National Ransom is good, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. The other performer is Dave Grohl, whose music has been the happy soundtrack to quite a bit of my life – as Nirvana’s drummer, as the Foo Fighters’ singer, and with his contribution to the Queens of the Stone Age album Songs for the Deaf. But since about 2005, with the release In Your Honor, I’ve been on a bit of a break from Grohl’s music.

Last year, Grohl played with Them Crooked Vultures (featuring his buddies John Paul Jones and Josh “Rhymes with Tommy” Homme) at Coachella. I tried really hard to like their album, but they forgot to write songs for it so I couldn’t quite pull that off. It was great to hear Grohl play live, though, and it reminded me that the dude is 1) an incredibly talented musician and 2) a seemingly likable guy (I say “seemingly” because I’ve never met the man, but every time I see or read an interview with him, he strikes me as a person of good humor and dignity).

So though my expectations are low for Wasting Light, Grohl’s new album with the Foo Fighters, I have to admit I almost desperately want to like it. The last really great Foo Fighters record, for me, was 1997’s The Colour and the Shape. Yes, it was an arena rock record (or what I like to call a Big Rock Record), but it showed off Grohl’s ability to write catchy pop songs and then dress them up like alternative rock radio hits. And the video for “Everlong” was rad as hell.

If you’ve felt the same way I have about the last few Foo Fighters albums, you might view Wasting Light as an almost shameless attempt to reestablish some manner of credibility – the album is produced by Butch Vig, it features guest appearances by Krist Novoselic (he was in one of the dead-end bands that Grohl played in before hitting the big time with the Foo Fighters) and Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould, and the packaging boasts that it was recorded directly to analog tape in Dave Grohl’s garage. For skeptics, the albums also comes with your very own slice of the master tape, tucked neatly into the booklet. Given my sunny disposition toward Mr. Grohl, I’m inclined to see these touches as signals of his earnest desire to return to making simple, primal rock music (and then destroy the masters!). In Your Honor and the one after it (the one with the long, stupid title) were definitely bloated from a production standpoint and the songs I heard were structurally similar to their 1990s stuff but without the same organic energy. So I’m going to give the Foo Fighters the benefit of the doubt on this one. Perhaps such a calculated shift to an “as live as possible” sound really helped them to get excited about making Wasting Light, which is the most energetic Foo Fighters release I’ve heard in years.

As I’ve said, Grohl used to be able to pen one helluva catchy chorus (even on the screamier songs like “Wind Up”), and he’s mostly found his way back to that on the new record. “Rope,” “Arlandria,” and “Back and Forth” are all pretty infectious and yet still radio-friendly in the way that songs like “Everlong” and “Monkeywrench” were. Though Grohl has boasted that no acoustic guitars were even seen around his garage during the recording of Wasting Light, it still has its ballady moments, including “These Days” and “I Should Have Known,” the latter of which will probably be assumed by lots of people to be about Kurt Cobain. I’m not going to assume that it is, because I feel really weird speculating about people’s feelings when they’ve lost a friend to suicide.

Maybe it’s a product of low expectations, but I quite enjoy Wasting Light. It’s the first Foo Fighters album since The Colour and the Shape (was that really 14 years ago? Sweet Zombie Jesus, it was) that I’ve wanted to listen to more than once. Sure, it can sound a little Queens of the Stone Age-y at times (especially on “Bridge Burning”), but that’s not really a bad thing. Grohl’s aesthetic is a little more poppy than Josh Homme’s and your enjoyment of Wasting Light might hinge on how much you think that’s a good thing. Foo Fighters fans who have found themselves either half-heartedly defending or ignoring (as I have) their last few records should be quite happy with it. It would be easy to say that Wasting Light is the Foo Fighters’ Accelerate, but that’s understating things a bit. Wasting Light, though not flawless, is better than Accelerate overall.

Grohl has made much in interviews about the unique sound you can get recording straight to tape, and he’s right. But that sound might be partly responsible for the fact that Wasting Light is a little light in terms of sonic diversity. That’s slightly offset by the violin and accordion parts on “I Should Have Known,” but basically, you can divide the album into Heavy Guitar Rock songs (“Bridge Burning,” “Rope,” and “White Limo”), Guitar Pop Rock songs (“Back and Forth” and “Walk”) and Patented Foo Fighters Power Ballads (“These Days” and “I Should Have Known”) and pick your favorites.

I find it kind of interesting that Dave Grohl starts Wasting Light screaming “These are my famous last words” and ends it on “Walk” by screaming “I never wanna die.” In fact, the now firmly middle-aged Grohl ponders death quite a bit on the album, telling “Dear Rosemary” that “youth ain’t gonna change the way you die.” I think it’s probably natural to take stock of things when you hit your forties (ask me again when I get there), because that’s a decade where you’re not young anymore but you’re certainly not old. That the Foo Fighters are still able to rock out in a satisfying way – and sound like they really enjoy doing it – at this point in their careers is, by my reckoning, pretty fucking awesome.

I didn’t really have an album in mind that I specifically hoped the Foo Fighters would make; I just knew I didn’t want to hear something like “Pretender” or “Best of You” ever again. Wasting Light’s worst songs beat those two clunkers by a damn sight and if it’s a little radio-friendly, so what? Nirvana was radio-friendly at one time, too. It doesn’t mean the music is bad. It means that, even with all the stupidity driving commercial rock radio these days, stations that usually bombard you with shit like Nickelback, Creed, and Papa Roach can occasionally slip up and play something listenable.

The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

Holler and Stomp

Here at Bollocks!, we don’t believe in guilty pleasures. You like what you like and that’s your damn business (unless you like Fall Out Boy, then it’s the world’s business to take note and join forces to stop you). So I’m not going to make any apologies for liking Dressy Bessy. I like them. Fuck you.

Yes, their music is dreadfully simple. Yes, Tammy Ealom sings like your teenage sister, taunting and too cute by half. Yes, they have five albums that mostly sound the same. But they’re a lot of fucking fun, which is a good thing for rock music to be. Some people operate under the false assumption that indie music should be all serious and sensitive. Sometimes, though, you have to chill the fuck out and bounce around the room. That’s where Dressy Bessy comes in (although it should be said, and can’t be said enough, that The Hold Steady perfectly melds room-bouncing awesomeness with serious intelligence).

Holler and Stomp is their latest offering and I tried to resist it for as long as I could, but who am I kidding? I’m a complete weakling for this band and have been since their eponymous third album (which is really their best – loud guitars, tight focus, and perfect brevity). So here I am listening to Holler and Stomp. And since I liked this album before I ever even heard it (weakling, remember?), there’s not much to talk about here.

There’s actually a greater attempt at varied song structure on Holler and Stomp than on previous Dressy Bessy outings. Stop laughing, it’s true.  Their earlier work is pretty much straightforward rock, while Holler and Stomp flirts with funk and rockabilly. Dressy Bessy will probably never go the Green Day route of coyly planting a sensitive acoustic number at the end of a record thus launching them to the top of the charts, and that’s one of my favorite things about them. Their musical approach is, in a nutshell: “Any given song can be improved by adding an electric guitar to it.” This is the meat-and-potatoes shit, and Dressy Bessy does it with an infectious style.

Granted, the lyrics are often ridiculous. On the album opener “Automatic,” Ealom sings “I’m going to steal your candy,” and there’s nothing to indicate that this is any kind of metaphor. I’m pretty sure she’s talking about stealing your candy. “In Your Headphones” pretty much just repeats “It’s in your headphones” over and over (thank your favorite deity the song is barely two minutes long). There’s scant evidence in the Dressy Bessy catalog to suggest that they believe in metaphor or irony in the least, which is actually kind of refreshing when contrasted with, say, Fall Out Boy’s calculated lack of giving a shit. (A tangent, as is my wont – I was out a bar this weekend and they had a million TVs, all of which were showing music videos. This was only occasionally awesome, but for the most part they were showing Britney Spears and Fall Out Boy videos. Remember, I live in Los Angeles. But it was the most time I’ve spent listening to Fall Out Boy at one time where I had no control over changing the song. This band irrevocably blows. They must be stopped. How much do they fucking suck? Well, I saw a video of them covering Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” with John Mayer. The forces of evil are gathering, friends. If you are in a band, or thinking of starting a band, you must work to fight this with all your might. Gather up your guitars, learn to play them, and kick Fall Out Boy’s ass. I will help you.)

Dressy Bessy will always be my favorite Dressy Bessy album, but Holler and Stomp will probably move into second place – it’s a lot of fun and is more varied than its predecessor, Electrified. If you liked any Dressy Bessy album before, you will like Holler and Stomp. If you didn’t, you probably don’t like fun.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about Holler and Stomp. I dig it and I dig Dressy Bessy and I don’t care if the P-fork people snort derisively about it.

Sufjan Stevens still sucks.