Foo Fighters: Beyond Nirvana
Give Foo Fighters credit on their own terms. By all evidence, theyÕre going to be a great power-pop band. On their Foo Fighters debut for their own Roswell/Capitol imprint, theyÕve got it all: hooky melodies; big, raspy guitars; dramatic dynamics; and a dark, insistent anger that pulls like a black undertow beneath the melodic glow. Name your favorite cranky/depressed guitar popster Ñ Kevin Salem, Tommy Keene, Jen Trynin, Gigolo Aunts, even Aimee Mann or Matthew Sweet. Foo Fighters have some of that bittersweet tunefulness as well as some of popÕs punkier ooze Ñ songs like ComeÕs ÒIn/Out,Ó HoleÕs ÒViolet,Ó anything by Royal Trux. In fact, Foo Fighters sum up everything thatÕs on Òmodern rockÓ radio right now, sometimes in a single song Ñ from R.E.M. jangle to heavy-metal power chording. When Foo Fighters singles like ÒIÕll Stick Around,Ó ÒThis Is a Call,Ó and ÒExhaustedÓ were leaked to radio a few months ago, listeners responded in the best way Ñ blindly. Who are these guys? By now, the band have been swallowed up by concrete expectations, and a familiar identity. Because it turns out that, on disc anyway, Foo Fighters arenÕt a band at all. TheyÕre Dave Grohl, former drummer for Nirvana, and the first of the bandÕs two surviving members to release an album since the death of Kurt Cobain in April 1994. Foo Fighters , except for one guitar part on one track by Afghan WhigsÕ Greg Dulli, is all Grohl. (GrohlÕs previous solo project was a cassette-only release, Pocketwatch, for the Simple Machines label in 1991.) The first word on the album from those in the know was that it sounded like Nirvana, except for GrohlÕs sweeter, less plaintive vocal style. And that was confirmed by those who caught Foo Fighters playing as a band opening for Mike Watt back in May. On the full album, the Kurt-less Nirvana comparisons turn out to be true to an extent. There are those dramatic dynamic shifts (known in strict musicological terms as the ÒNirvana soft/loud/soft/loud thingÓ). There are the grungy choruses and speed-metal explosions. There are those abstract, allusive lyrics and, most uncanny of all, the oddly suspended vocal melody lines. Foo Fighters arenÕt merely Nirvana lite. Their material is strong enough that in time theyÕll be heard only as themselves. But there are plenty of reasons why itÕs nigh-impossible to hear them as anything but part of the Nirvana legacy right now, just as itÕs impossible to hear Hole that way. It goes beyond musical similarities and the necessary comparisons forced by Grohl-as-boss. ItÕs because, for anyone who cares about rock right now, everything during the past year has played in the shadow of CobainÕs death. This isnÕt merely a matter of the prevailing rock wisdom Ñ that Nirvana opened the door for Green Day, Offspring, et al. Nirvana have been acting as a kind of emotional fulcrum for everything weÕve heard since KurtÕs death, on account of his unflinching honesty. Do R.E.M. matter anymore? Are the Offspring fakes? Is PJ Harvey serious? Should Pearl Jam cut a deal with TicketMaster? Can Kim Deal save Kelley, and save her band? This is all part of the general run of rock-and-roll gossip and rock-and-roll bullshit. But rockÕs random notes also hint at rockÕs emotional core. In the end, we always give the Rolling StonesÕ answer Ñ ÒItÕs only rock and rollÓ but we like it. ItÕs fun, it helps us shake our butts and blow off steam. But down under I think people ask a lot of questions about rock and roll because we want more than the old beat we can dance to. We want it to speak to us, to give us the news of the world and ourselves. In rock and roll the tawdry and the banal continually flip-flop with the sublime. Calling Bob Stinson a loser doesnÕt really explain the emotional claim his death had on people who never met him. Why do people feel so betrayed that J Mascis wonÕt get his shit together and write the Great American Rock Album? CourtneyÕs latest overdose sounds like a bad tabloid joke, but then you turn on the radio and thereÕs ÒViolet,Ó shutting your mouth like a slap. So KurtÕs death reminded us how important rock and roll is to us, just as John LennonÕs did. ThatÕs why a new album by Dave Grohl can only be greeted as news from the front. Foo Fighters isnÕt so much a continuation of Nirvana as an answer. From the opening melody of the first song, ÒThis Is a Call,Ó the album has a sweet, redemptive glow. ÒThis is a call to all my past resignations,Ó sings Grohl. ItÕs too lyrical for an anthem, but the call absolves him and his audience. From what, we donÕt know. ItÕs a wake-up call, a found vocation, an annunciation. Maybe itÕs simply an absolution from the collective post-Kurt hangover. Grohl says he recorded these dozen songs last October from a group of between 30 to 40 that he had written over the years. Several date from songwriting sessions during breaks from Nirvana, so we can assume that none was written to address the death of Kurt Cobain. But no one could be blamed for putting them to that use, among others. A crisis has come and passed, an unspecified Òit.Ó ÒIÕve taken all and IÕve endured/One day it will fade/IÕm sure,Ó Grohl sings on ÒIÕll Stick Around,Ó in the sweetest pop chorus imaginable before breaking into a raging, endlessly repeated: ÒI donÕt owe you anything!Ó And then, surprise, a new melody and a new verse, just as harsh as that negation: ÒIÕll stick around and learn from all that came from it.Ó ItÕs the kind of neat closure, and neat affirmation, Kurt would never allow himself. And itÕs the kind of line you can read as an answer to KurtÕs suicide or not. Not just the voice but the closure and the symmetry align Grohl with pop (even though his formative experience before Nirvana was with the DC hardcore band Scream). The country jangle of ÒBig MeÓ is as pretty a love song as Cobain never wrote, where ÒitÓ could be some abstract or intellectualized ÒideaÓ of love and commitment overcome by a leap of faith Ñ or a swoon: ÒWell I talked about it/Put it on/Never was it true/But itÕs you I fell into.Ó On the country-ish ditty ÒFor All the Cows,Ó Grohl sees himself as just another overfed bovine milk giver with a responsibility to the rest of the herd: ÒIÕm a cow/IÕm not about/To blow it now/For all the cows.Ó And then, ÒItÕs funny how money allows all to browse/And be endowed.Ó Grohl doesnÕt want to be a ÒfakeÓ any more than Kurt did, and he sings in a couple of songs about being Òousted,Ó perhaps from the all-knowing tribe of rock subculture. But most of the time, the lyrics allude to specifics. Sometimes he seems to be working his lyrics out by means of Kurt Cobain/William Burroughs cut-and-paste, the words chosen as much for sound as sense, and for associative emotional quality. ThatÕs true of the Al JourgensenÐlike Draino-voiced rant of ÒBeenie WeenieÓ and the rapid-fire one-pitch staccato of ÒWatershed.Ó The latter is GrohlÕs nonsense litany of complaints: ÒIÕm skinny as a spit pan/Dealing with the shit plan/Playing with my bad hand/Just another rock band.Ó And then he concludes: ÒHey man, canÕt you tell itÕs still a problem? See you at the devilÕs tower.Ó EverythingÕs great for the former member of the worldÕs greatest punk band? Not a chance. But heÕll be up on the devilÕs tower anyway, ranting with and for the rest of us. Grohl moves through these songs with Nirvana-like facility, adapting all of rock and roll, using devices where and when he has to, rejecting nothing out of hand. ÒFloatyÓ opens with an acoustic jangle floating in loose 3/4, a dream of earthbound freedom and Beatles-esque harmonies (ÒHe floats/Floats away/On the ground/He comes back downÓ) set against a grungy specter of a chorus. By the end, the wall of guitars has become a majestic edifice. ÒOh GeorgeÓ is a pretty mid-tempo dirge with a George Harrison slide-guitar solo right out of ÒMy Sweet LordÓ that breaks into harsher single-note stutters. At times, those suspended melody lines in GrohlÕs verses seem to ache for a resolution they can find not with words but only with more guitar and a bigger beat. Elsewhere, heÕs happy to climb his devilÕs tower and rant. GrohlÕs ultimate answer to his experience in Nirvana might simply be in the totality of these songs, their protean variety. ItÕs the same kind of magic Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices recently worked on the stage of Boston's Paradise cranking out 35 songs in 90 minutes Ñ diary jottings, prose poems, party anthems, personal musings, an endless stream of consciousness that seemed to pour out in one fresh rock-and-roll song after another. Grohl is digging in that same hole, Òlooking for the motherlode,Ó as Black Francis used to sing Ñ digging for fire, the inexhaustible vein of rock-and-roll nuggets and, if you will, life after death. In a January 1994 interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke, Cobain talked about tensions within Nirvana, especially the tensions caused by his heroin addiction. HeÕd put the drugs behind him, he said, and things had Ògone back to pretty much normal.Ó And then he added, ÒExcept for Dave. IÕm kind of concerned about him, because he still feels he can be replaced at any time.Ó On Foo Fighters , GrohlÕs generosity of spirit is less complicated than KurtÕs. HeÕs simply one of us, just as stunned and confused by catastrophe. But heÕll stick around. And thatÕs as good as it gets.