This year Dave Grohl and his bunch of merry men released their ninth studio album and have embarked on another stadium slaughtering world tour. It seems somewhat strange – having been listening in attentively for most of the ride – for the Foo Fighters to have reached such a scale when the band’s beginnings were so decidedly quieter and personal.
A lot changed in the years between Dave Grohl recording the entirety of the first album across a one-week period in 1994 and topping the charts with Conrcete and Gold as a six-piece member band and with a total of nine studio albums to their name I’ve been listening back through the back catalogue and decided, once again, to try to share my thoughts on each
My previous undertaking of a Least to Most was almost too much of an undertaking. To keep the fun and momentum, I’m not going to be exploring every album in a separate post for one thing though will be looking at them ‘One by One’ but in three hits of three.
It’s worth noting that, as with that initial series; it’s just that, personal favourites – I don’t lay claim to my judgement of one album’s quality to being universal or true. It’s supposed to be fun after all. Though it may well correlate with just such features’ listings, this isn’t a ‘worst to best’ just a ‘least to most’ favourite and, again, I listen to these albums pretty regularly so I wouldn’t call any of them ‘bad’ or they wouldn’t be sat on my shelves.
So, let’s get on with it and get going from the Least end…
One By One
Relax, something had to start this off and I know that this album most definitely has it’s champions. Hey, I can understand it; there are some cracking songs on One By One – there’s just not enough of them and, overall, the album doesn’t gel cohesively. It suffers from both its troubled birth and the band themselves having seemingly stepped away from it.
Coming off the back of the successful There Is Nothing Left To Lose, the band started working up songs and demos before taking a break in 2001 to play some European festivals. I happened to catch em at V2001. Unfortunately, after that show Taylor Hawkins suffered a heroin overdose, landing in a coma for two days.
Once back underway, sessions on the album grew stale, the heavy use of ProTools and rough mixes left band members feeling unsatisfied and, amidst risig tensions, the “million-dollar demos” were abandoned and the Foo Fighters went on pause as Grohl headed out on tour as drummer for Queens of the Stone Age. One massive fight during rehearsals for Coachella and a blistering ‘make or break’ show at the same festival later, the band got back together to take another stab at some of those songs already recorded and get down some of Grohl’s newer compositions including ‘Low’ and ‘Times Like These’.
When One By One dropped – heralded by the spectacular ‘All My Life’ which remains one of the band’s strongest songs – it was initially well received. But time hasn’t been kind to this one and it’s not aged well. It’s a frustrating listen with a good few songs but bogged down overall by several that don’t really cut it after repeated listens. I very rarely listen to this one and when I did so recently I couldn’t remember most of the song titles or melodies beyond the keepers – ‘All My Life’, ‘Low‘, ‘Have it All’ and ‘Times Like These.’ Oddly enough these happen to be the first four songs on the album and, beyond that, I very rarely venture.
Some great moments on One By One but the band’s heaviest album is also it’s hardest listen. As Grohl himself has said ” “four of the songs were good, and the other seven I’ve never played again in my life. We rushed into it, and we rushed out of it”
Highlights: ‘All My Life’, ‘Low’, ‘Have it All,’ ‘Times Like These.’
It pains me to put this one so low on the list as it’s one I’ve listened to a lot – chiefly because my almost-four-year-old requested ‘Something From Nothing’ so often- but, while it’s less of a challenge to listen to than One By One the truth is that Sonic Highways is not a great Foo Fighters album.
This is peak-concept Foos and it suffers as a result, almost coming across as not a real Foo Fighters album but as a soundtrack to their documentary series of the same name. Each ‘episode’ would see Grohl adding lyrics to songs based on conversations and ‘nuggets’ from that city. As such the references to Muddy Waters in ‘Something From Nothing’ seem forced and even Grohl’s tribute to his DC punk roots ‘Feast and the Famine’ is glossed and buffed into sonic tameness by Butch Vig. The other problem with the concept is that it forced guest stars onto every track whether or not they were needed – even Cheap Trick’s Rick Neilson questions whether they need a fourth guitar on ‘Something From Nothing’ – as though the songs must be forced through a strict criteria in order to make it to the album rather than happening organically because it was part of the Project to have guests on every song.
Some of the songs and details are good, though, don’t get me wrong. The feedback squall and solo at the end of ‘Something From Nothing’, Gary Clark Jr’s solo on an otherwise turd of a song ‘What Did I Do? /God As My Witness’, Joe Walsh’s chilled guitar licks in ‘Outside’ and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s blasts on ‘In The Clear’ all give a good hit of enjoyment and ‘Subterranean’ is a great one.
The problem is that songs like ‘I Am A River’ and ‘ don’t hold up to repeated listens or justify their length and ‘Congregation’ still holds its place as my least-favourite Foo Fighters song ever. The album, to my ears, sounds like good songs left half-baked, their gestation and development into something better sacrificed in the name of Concept as borne out by the release of the Saint Cecilia at the end of 2015 – four songs recorded without concept or Vig’s production buffing it all out that managed to kick the arse of everything on Sonic Highways.
Highlights: ‘Something from Nothing’, ‘In The Clear’, ‘Outside’, ‘Subterranean’.
In Your Honor
Aside from the whole *Honour thing…. In Your Honor was the start of what I’ve come to regard as the Foo Fighers ‘gimmick’ phase. After touring One by One – a tour which saw them become a genuinely thrilling live act – Grohl was unsure where to take his Foos next and, after the gruelling sessions for that album, didn’t fancy rushing into a new album straight away. Thinking of looking for film score work he picked up his guitar and set about writing acoustic songs, managing to amass a whole album’s worth. But, this being Dave Grohl, he couldn’t just have an acoustic record, he’s a man who has ” to have loud rock music in my life somewhere” so decided it was time for a double album. One CD of “really heavy rock shit” and another of “really beautiful, acoustic-based, lower dynamic stuff.” Uh-oh, sounds like a Concept….
What handicaps In Your Honor, though, is that Concept. That it has to be twenty songs long rather than it being that long because Grohl had written that many belters. That it needs to have ten really heavy fucking songs of wall-to-wall riffs AND ten songs that are as gentle as a kitten’s fart. And to keep them as far apart from each other as possible too. As such while at least half of the ‘heavy’ songs are top drawer, the rest just sort of repeat the notions and many of the songs on the ‘soft’ disc wouldn’t be released were it not a case of needing enough of them to fill a double album and the sheer distance between the two make it hard to link the sides of the same album to each other.
But.. as with all misguided double album’s there’s one gleaming, top notch, single-disc album in here waiting to be heard once shorn of its excess. The opening two on the ‘rock’ disc – ‘In Your Honor‘ and ‘No Way Back’ are as strong and relentless as a viagra’d up trouser snake and break only to let in the album’s lead single (and Foo classic) ‘Best of You’* and ‘DOA’ is equally as catchy while ‘Resolve’ is a 70’s Rock tinged earworm.
Despite the sensation that the band aren’t quite settled in feeling out their gentler side, the ‘Soft’ half has some of the album’s more interesting moments. Opener ‘Still’ is bathed in backround ambience and sneaky piano, ‘Over and Out’ has some great tom-tom work from Taylor Hawkins (though his lead-vocal début ‘Cold Day In The Sun’ veers far too close to AOR Slush), ‘Miracle’ – with piano from John Paul Jones – is a definite keeper as is ‘Friend of a Friend‘, a hold-over written by Grohl while in Nirvana and undoubtedly about his bandmantes and ‘Razor’ features some great guitar interplay between Grohl and his BFF Josh Homme to bring it to a close.
While some of the first disc gets tiresome and some of the “really beautiful” second disc is more “really coffee shop background” – take half of one and half of the other and you’ve got a great album here. Keep them restrained by the Concept and they’re dragged down.
Highlights: ‘In Your Honor’, ‘No Way Back’, ‘Best of You’, ‘DOA’, ‘Resolve’. ‘Still’, ‘Miracle’, ‘Friend of a Friend’, ‘Over and Out’, ‘Razor’.
*Why is Dave Grohl so popular on Amazon? He’s always giving the best the best the best the best reviews.
3 thoughts on “Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 1”
Very interesting. I will have to read this and subsequent posts on the Foos as if from afar. While I like some of their stuff, it’s mostly just what I’ve heard on the radio. For a band that’s been around for an astonishing 23 years, I know very little of their output. My son is a massive fan, saw them last year, may well see them next year. So for me, I’ll just enjoy reading this as a capsule history of sorts, maybe pick up a song or two more.
I caught em once – as mentioned – back in 2001 and they were a great live band even back then. Not sure I fancy stadium gigs these days, I prefer to see the stage rather than a screen.
I’m lining up other possibles for the Least to Worst though – Pink Floyd is a strong contender, Dylan is a no chance as there’s just too many. I’ve got a playlist for each ‘Part’ coming up too
Floyd would be fun. You’re just the bloke for the job.