Five From: Death Cab For Cutie

An attempt at a new feature wherein – in an effort to shake off the ‘lapsed’ status of postings – I proffer up five songs from an artist / band. Not a ‘Top Five’ as such more a potted selection should you be so inclined to check said act out….

Hailing from a Bellingham, Washington and undoubtedly influenced by the emo scene in nearby Seattle, Death Cab For Cutie have been putting out records for (gulp) 21 years now.

I got into them, like so many I guess, on the back of their widely acclaimed Transatlanticism. But then I stopped listening after the overexposure of Plans on the back of, I think, it featuring on some of those overly sappy, treacly, cheesier than a cheddar factory US teen-sitcom shows. However, in 2011 my wife surprised me with tickets to a DCFC show. I was expecting a lot of quiet acoustic numbers. Instead it was one of the best live shows I’ve seen – new material (the then-new Codes and Keys album) vastly more upbeat and superior to anything on Plans and songs that I didn’t know that meant I quickly went and picked up Narrow Stairs. The quality of those two albums (and the connection to a great night out) meant that Death Cab went up the play count list. Here’s five of those heavy rotation tunes that don’t sit in Spotify’s Top Five for DCFC:

Why’d You Want To Live Here

Title And Registration

This is the one that first got my attention and I still thoroughly enjoy it and Transatlanticism. That nagging little guitar line… I was quite chuffed when I sussed that one out.

I Will Possess Your Heart

Narrow Stairs is all too often dismissed and this song is immense with its build up of layers and pulsing rhythm – it kills live too.

You Are A Tourist

Viewed in retrospective, Codes and Keys is actually an intense break-up / pre-divorce album. Frontman Ben Gibbard had been married to Zooey Deschanel for a couple of years and was living the healthy life…. everyone labelled it his ‘happy’ album. But then the couple announced their seperation a few months later and lyrics like “If you feel just like a tourist/ In the city you were born/ Then it’s time to go/ And define your destination/ There’s so many different places to call home” take on a different meaning. Either way Codes and Keys is a bloody good album.

Little Wanderer

From their last studio album, Kintsugi. Not their strongest but a good effort and also the last to feature guitarist / occasional songwriter Chris Walla who’d been with the group from the start. With a new album strongly hinted at for this year, I’m looking forward to more.

I have legalised robbery, called it belief

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a strange thing that I reckon probably means more in the States than it does here. I think it’s a lot of backslapping really but seems like excuse enough for a good bout of entertainment each year as those acts inducted – depending on which member is still not speaking to another for perceived slights / lawsuits / wife fondling or other – blast through a couple of their most well-known numbers.

While I’m sure many a musical press headline will be given over to whether an estranged guitarist will rejoin his former New Jersey bandmates and plug in his talkbox, the really interesting one for me is the induction of Dire Straits.

Aside from seeing a very British band being pulled into a distinctly American ritual, the big question is whether or not Mark Knopfler will decide this is reason enough to play with those other members that are being inducted.

Given that one of those members being inducted is his brother David, who left the band all the way back in 1980 and the two have barely spoken since – it makes for quite the plot twist. While original drummer Pick Withers left in 1983 his departure was an amicable one so I doubt any issue would arise there. Of course there’s no doubt bass player, and the only other member to have been a constant, John Illsley is up for it: he’s said as much to press since the announcement and, to me, seems like the Nick Mason of the band – always up for the reunion that isn’t in his power to call.

It’s odd that Dire Straits are being inducted at all, in a way. It’s probably evidence that the “fan ballot” is now being considered, I suppose (and who would’ve pinned Dire Straits as getting that many votes?), but while there’s no denying their talent and popularity (how many people have a cd with a shimmering National Resonator on the cover? Thirty odd million?) they never seemed likely contenders for such a… recognition.

In a way they were never cool. My wife recently said – while not faulting them – they were a bit “boring.” It’s certainly true that they were never really innovators or swore on national tv or that Knopfler’s image was permanently removed from any possibility of cool thanks to those sweatbands, but I find it odd they don’t get much recognition in the same way so many other bands of that era have been offered in the urgency to bestow “legendary” status on those bands music writers remember from childhood. Rolling Stone put it succinctly “it might be a stretch to expect [millennials] to understand how band frontman Mark Knopfler, a balding thirtysomething given to wearing headbands and wristbands, used to  fill arenas full of young people. Pop stars don’t really look like dads as much as they used to. ”

I guess they’re just not ‘cool’ enough to be mentioned as influences or remembered beyond ‘Money for Nothing’ or ‘Sultans of Swing’ as far as radio programmers go.

Which is a real shame. I grew up with a grey TDK mixtape of their first four albums on heavy rotation in my Dad’s car so they form an important part of my musical education and, as I’ve said before – they’re all too often sneered at though I’m sure there’s an awful lot of guitarists and bands influenced by Knopfler’s playing. If it wouldn’t be counter-productive I’d give my right hand to play some of those licks and master that tone (I remember spending a huge amount of time learning ‘Private Investigations’).

They weren’t just four (or five or six depending on the time you caught them) blokes that looked like your geography teacher playing in a pub band. They lasted as long as they did – going against the flow of punk, new romantics and synthpop and fucking Duran Duran – and sold as many records as they did because behind the deceptively laid back phrasing and style there’s a master songwriter and formidable guitar player at work in Dire Straits’ back catalogue and to refute that is just plain ignorant. So – regardless of whether some format of the band gets up and plays ‘Romeo and Juliet’ one more time – I’m glad to see them being inducted. Well deserved.

That being said I am rooting for Knopfler, Illsley and Withers to at least play together one more time and put the thing to bed properly.

In the spirit of trying to get away from the obvious, here’s a playlist of a baker’s dozen ‘non-regulation’ tracks that you won’t find spun on radio but really should.



Currently Listening

Here we are again. Another ‘series’ down and a couple brewing in the pot and time for a look at what (alongside continual listens to Lost In Kiev’s Nuit Noire) my auditory ossicles have been pinging on down the line of late.

The Mono Jacks – 1,000 De Da

This one was sent to my wife last week via our friend in Romania who gave me some ammo for my Out of Europe on that country and I’ve been listening to it and their new album pretty solidly since. My Romanian isn’t strong enough to offer a translation but I’m told it deals with a certain kind of… parental method that a lot of Romanians today can identify with and “represents our inner children yelling for freedom as we each carve our own paths in life”. The Mono Jacks describe themselves as sounding “between alternative rock and post-punk touches”. As the review on the band’s site says: “I’ve seen most of the British bands ploughing this particular furrow, and The Mono Jacks have better songs than pretty much all of them.”

Destroyer – Chinatown

Another example of strange ways to discover music…. I was looking at an album on Amazon a week or two back and down in the “recommended” type carousel I saw Destroyer’s Kapputt at £5 for a double lp. Out of nothing more than curiosity and intrigue after scanning the glowing reviews (numerous album of the year accolades and reviews like “an astonishing world in just nine songs” and “an open love letter to a vanished pop era: it’s unique and warm and beautiful” ) I checked it out on Spotify and was hooked and hit ‘buy’. Why it was so cheap I have no idea, but, to quote another review “a brilliant and accessible album that draws from the lush sounds of the early 1980s but never forgets the importance of songwriting”.

Band of Susans – Elizabeth Stride 1843-1888

Again – different ways of discovering music. I saw a book (I think on Instagram) that I thought might be interesting called ‘Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981–1996.’ I downloaded a sample chapter and while it’s more a case of “author’s favourite 500..” the description of Band of Susan’s Here Comes Success got me intrigued and I’ve had this opening track on a lot since. There’s a really obvious late-80’s Sonic Youth element to it along with *that* guitar sound. This one actually sent me down one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes that lead to the Saucy Jacky postcard (“you’re a saucy one, Jack”). Apparently Leo Fender was a rabid fan – of Band of Susans not Jack the Ripper.

Pearl Jam – Release, 1994 Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA

Because Jim at Music Enthusiast has got me seriously considering delving deeper into a Pearl Jam series and because I need no excuse to listen to Pearl Jam I’ve been spinning the live disc that came with the Vs/Vitalogy box. In terms of Pearl Jam live albums it’s probably the finest ‘official’ release out there.

Bruce Springsteen – I’ll Stand By You Always

Again in preparation for a possible series / longer post… (my notebook is starting to fill up with these and I haven’t even touched on the 100 Essential Albums thing..) back when Springsteen was doing the promo rounds for his book he confirmed the existence of this one as having been written for, and turned down by the producers of that film about kids and magic. At the time he said that it was “very uncharacteristic of something I’d sing myself.” “It was something that I thought would have fit lovely.” Well, despite being locked down for over a decade it emerged this year on a bootleg set called Odds and Sods. Perhaps not suited for a kids movie as such it’s certainly a different take for Bruce and would probably rank quite highly on his ‘movie songs’ list. It comes from the start of a very prolific song-writing period for Bruce and while he currently squats on Broadway in another activity that keeps him from releasing any new material it’s worth a listen for fans.

In terms of where this sits with sessions and musicians…. It’s listed as “copyright June 13, 2001” so my guess is that it could be from the E Street sessions at Thrill Hill East of that spring – between the end of the Reunion Tour and the start of The Rising sessions later that year in Atlanta – that Springsteen considered fruitless but there’s so little on it in terms of ‘band’ sound that it could just as easily be a solo recording.

Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 3

Foo Fighters

It’s surprising the amount of stick Dave Grohl got for moving forward and making new music. Or, as some saw it, daring to make new music after the death of Kurt Cobain. As the man himself has often pondered – did they just expect him to stop? Music was all he’d done up until that point and he was only 25, why should he stop? In October of 1994, six months following Cobain’s suicide, Grohl booked some time at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle – where Nirvana’s final, aborted studio sessions had taken place (which yielded the demo of what would become ‘You Know You’re Right‘) earlier that same year – and recorded a fifteen-track demo, playing every instrument (save one guitar solo) himself.

Not sure where his future lay Grohl considered looking for another band with a vacant drum stool. One such stool had recently been vacated by Stan Lynch and there’s a great video of Grohl going full Animal with the Heartbreakers on SNL – “it was the first time I’d looked forward to playing the drums since Nirvana had ended.” Ultimately, though (and even after a couple of shows sitting on the vacant Pearl Jam drum stool*), Grohl wanted to give his ‘Foo Fighters’ project his attention as the demo tape he’d circulated was now picking up major label interest. The name was applied to the demo tape as Grohl wanted some anonymity post-Nirvana and to suggest that a group was behind the music.

Released in July 1995, there’s something wonderfully charming and warm about Foo Fighters. It’s very much a product of its time – the guitars are very grunge-like and loaded with the same levels of fuzz associated with Grohl’s former outfit but the songs quickly jump into more melodic and lighter routes and there’s an overwhelming sense of lightness and, yes, goofiness that wouldn’t be present on any other Foo Fighters release (likely down to the fact that the largely nonsensical lyrics were written 20 minutes before recording). It’s loaded with hook, charm and warmth and positivity. Though I have to wonder if I’m the only Foo Fighters fan that doesn’t care for ‘Big Me’.

Highlights: ‘This Is A Call’, ‘I’ll Stick Around’, ‘Alone + Easy Target’, ‘Good Grief’,’Floaty’

Wasting Light

Fuck but I love this album. This is the one instance in which the Gimmick behind it paid off in spades. In an effort to recapture some of the rougher sound of earlier Foo Fighters releases, Grohl decided that Foo Fighters Album 7 would be stripped of all the production bells and whistles that had been draped over Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and bought in Butch Vig and to record the entire album on analogue equipment in Dave’s garage.

At this point, though, it would be futile to expect such a process to result in a raw sounding record. It’s not like Dave Grohl has a small garage for that matter either. But, what makes Wasting Light such a late career highlight is that Vig captures a sense of purpose and drive in the band that had been lacking for at least three albums previous. It’s a big, anthemic rock record shorn of production sheen and filled with a sense of energy that comes from the fact that they recorded the entire album live and – with Pat Smear back in the ranks – a heavier, three-guitar strong attack.

From the off with ‘Bridges Burning’ powering into ‘Rope’ and ‘Dear Rosmery’ there’s no let up. Instead, when you’d expect it at track four, ‘White Limo’ has been described as “a blistering, paint-stripping thrash track” with Grohl’s vocals lost as he screams at what must be the top of his register. There’s no slowing down on Wasting Light. No ballads. ‘These Days’ looks like it’s gonna be that track until it turns into a thumping Foos classic that will no doubt rub shoulders with ‘Run’ and ‘Something From Nothing’ on the inevitable Greatest Hits 2. No, Wasting Light found a revitalised band firing with an energy and power few thought they had left in them and got me really paying attention to the band again and, depending on the day of the week, could just as easily sit right at the top of this list.

Highlights: ‘Bridges Burning’, ‘Rope’, ‘White Limo’, ‘These Days’,’Arlandria’, ‘Walk’.

The Colour and The Shape

Twenty years on (gulp), the moment when the practically-throwaway ‘Doll’ gets torn apart by the arrival of ‘Monkey Wrench’ and The Colour and The Shape shifts into gear remains shit-the-bed-amazing. So good that the band themselves would give the formula another go and top it with ‘T-Shirt’ giving way to ‘Run’ on this year’s Concrete & Gold. That being said, while ‘Run’ is a great song, it doesn’t match the sheer power and fire of ‘Monkey Wrench’ – an absolute stone-cold classic. And it’s not the only one on the album for is home to a tonne of em: ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘My Hero‘, ‘Walking After You’, ‘Enough Space’ and, easily their best song, ‘Everlong‘.

The Colour and The Shape was the first Foo Fighters album recorded as a group (although Grohl would end up re-recording the drum parts himself leaving drummer William Goldsmith little choice but to leave the band. He’d be replaced by Taylor Hawkins before the tour behind the album began) and is the most cohesive and consistent set of songs they’ve put to tape, still. After an extensive tour behind Foo Fighters, the band were coming together with Grohl emerging more confident in his role as singer and band leader – if you go back to ‘Monkey Wrench’ when he hits his final “one more thing before I quit” you can here that confidence screaming through. On the downside his first marriage was ending in divorce. This meant that, in place of the nonsensical lyrics on the first album, much of Grohl’s domestic strife was poured into the lyrics – ‘Everlong’ in particular is a strange mix up as it was written against both the collapse of his marriage and the beginning of a new relationship.

What makes this album stand out for me is that in between the staggering strength of the obvious hits, the songs that are so often forgotten are really bloody good too. Take ‘Enough Space‘ – watching ‘Back and Forth’ it’s clear how important this song was as one of the first new ones Grohl wrote for the band, with a tempo inspired by the jumping up and down of European audiences to heavier tunes. Or ‘My Poor Brain’ or ‘Wind Up’ or the best Foo Fighters album closer to date – ‘A New Way Home.’ These are great tunes and on any other album would be stand-outs. When put on an album stacked with killer classics they’re almost forgotten but prove that The Colour and the Shape is an album full of strengths (and ‘See You’ which, frankly, you can forgive).

Check out any review for a new Foo Fighters album and it will be this one that it gets judged against and with reason. The Colour and The Shape built the template of every song and direction the Foo Fighters would make yet remains their benchmark in terms of quality and consistency.

Highlights: All of it.

*Despite all the MTV (and Courtney fuelled) Nirvana vs Pearl Jam schtick the animosity between members really wasn’t there. Grohl sat in for two shows in Australia pre Jack-Irons and it’s been suggested that, having heard and recognised Grohl’s direction, they told him he’d be better doing it alone rather than playing for someone else. Eddie Vedder would actually premier two of the album’s songs on his radio show in 1995 as well as playing alongside Grohl in Mike Watt’s backing band – whose tour Vedder’s band Hovercraft were on along with Foo Fighters.

Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 2

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace

When touring the split-personality In Your Honor Foo Fighters would play two shows in each town / city – one big rock show in an arena and another in a smaller venue showcasing the quieter acoustic side of that album along with some re-readings of their back catalogue with an expanded line-up including a violinist, a pianist and former-Foo Pat Smear. The latter format would be captured in the lacklustre Skin and Bones and, at some point after the tour – as Dave Grohl tells it in ‘Back And Forth’ – the chief Foo was chatting with Clive Davis, boss of RCA (with whom the Foo Fighters have been since 1999) and expressed how great it would be if the Foos could be the band that did these different shows to demonstrate the different sides of their music and people could go to whichever appealed most and wouldn’t necessarily have to go to both. In what Grohl seems to have taken as a Svengeli comment (as opposed to, say, simply stating the bloody obvious), Davis replied “you can do both together” and the ‘Gimmick’ behind Foo Fighers Album 5 took root.

Taking In Your Honor‘s half-electric, half-acoustic approach and deciding to do it all on one album, often one song, meant that Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace saw the Foo Fighters incorporating more instrumentation and styling detours than before and scoring plenty of scorchers along the way. Lead single and opener ‘The Pretender‘ is top-drawer Foos and still ranks as one of their best. ‘Let It Die’ – acoustics giving way to screaming power chords and Grohl at full wail – is the perfect meld of the two Foo dynamics and shows the formula working at its best and ‘Erase/Replace’ is another and holds up well ten years later. ‘Long Road To Ruin’ is standard Foo Fighter mid-pace that was killed by over-play, ‘Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running)’ (a working title that stuck) is a good, fun blast. Thing is, even with Gil Norton at the helm, it’s when the band stretches that the cracks show – ‘Summers End’, ‘Statues, ‘Home, ‘But, Honestly’…. they’re ‘ok’ but not quite the finished article they should be and there’s nothing about them to lodge in memory and the lack of power house riffs apparent in the first half of the album makes the closing third drag just a bit too long.

Still, I’d be the last person to fault a band or artist for trying to stretch themselves – to stand still is to go backwards and all that – and the efforts would yield fruit soon enough….

Highlights: ‘The Pretender’, ‘Let It Die’, ‘Come Alive’, ‘Erase/Replace’,’Cheer Up, Boys (Your Make Up Is Running).’

There Is Nothing Left To Lose

This is where I, and I’m sure plenty of others, came in. ‘Learn To Fly‘, it’s video and There Is Nothing Left To Lose broke the Foo Fighters to a lot of people and deservedly so though I can’t help but feel that, in the passage of time and the band’s continual evolution into STADIUM ROCK BAND, it’s often forgotten.

Just before the band would head out on tour for The Colour and the Shape, Pat Smear announced he wanted to leave. He hung around and continued to tour while the band found a replacement in Grohl’s former Scream bandmate Franz Stahl but, after that tour, Stahl too was fired. It’s clearly still a sore point for those involved but it would appear that writing for Foo Fighters Album 3 wasn’t working with Stahl. Feeling that the previous album’s recording sessions with Gil Norton were too arduous, Grohl decided to record the next one in his basement with the band as a three-piece – once Nate Mendel had quit for a day*.

Grohl has said of the sessions that “At that point it was me, Taylor and Nate and we were best friends. It was one of the most relaxing times of my whole life. All we did was eat chilli, drink beer and whiskey and record whenever we felt like it.” There Is Nothing Left To Lose feels like it was a blast to make. It’s got the energy and drive that would inform their later work but also retains the quirky charm of their earliest recordings. If I recall correctly there was an interview around the time where Grohl said he was focused more and more on melody too and there are times – ‘Aurora’, ‘Generator’, ‘Live-in Skin’ and the Police-like ‘Headwires’ when There Is Nothing Left To Lose is a great power-pop record. ‘Next Year’ and ‘Ain’t It The Life’ are great showcases for the band’s developing mellow side while ‘Stacked Actors’ and ‘Breakout’ are the obligatory harder edged cuts which, oddly, do nothing for me and seem positively out of place overall on this album.

Highlights: ‘Learn To Fly’, ‘Headwires’, ‘Aurora’, ‘Next Year’,’Generator’

Concrete and Gold

I gave my first impressions on this one only recently and I still think it ranks up there as one of the band’s finest. Free of the gimmicks the band headed to a big studio, hired a producer and the only focus was on creating a shit load of good songs. They succeeded. When talking of Gil Norton’s involvement on Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Taylor Hawkins said it had been the first time “Dave had to deal with someone in the room questioning all his ideas”. Between these two albums it would seem that nobody really questions Dave’s ideas when they needed to because Concrete and Gold is the Foo Fighters album they’d been trying to make for a long time – a heavy mother with plenty of diversity and reach but, more than on any other attempt, consistency and quality.

In the build up to its release, the PR machine latched on to Dave Grohl’s description of it being Motorhead taking on Sgt Pepper. Ryan Adams has called it their Revolver. Concrete and Gold doesn’t quite achieve the premise of its PR – though it does feature Paul McCartney – and is, at the end of the day, a Foo Fighers ROCK album. To quote my initial review “It does, however, stand apart in the Foo Fighters cannon and is the sound of the band playing to those highs and strengths its achieved during its ascent to stadium rock act while also stretching out enough sonically to both refresh its sound and offer a welcome hand to those fans like me that had begun to wonder if Dave Grohl had anything interesting left up his sleeves. Turns out he does.”

Highlights: ‘Run’, ‘Make It Right’, ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’, ‘Dirty Water’,’Arrows,’ ‘Concrete and Gold’.

Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 1

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.’

Sonic Highways

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.

Out of Europe: Five from Belgium

As the idiots currently keeping their overpaid, corpulent backsides on the green benches in the Houses of Parliament continue making a complete and utter shite show of the political equivalent of chewing on a live hand grenade, I thought it time to rock up with another Out of Europe post.

And where better to rock up to, as it were, than Belgium? One of the smaller countries in Europe but densely populated and which also happens to be a seat of the European Parliament – cue the brainless barks of “our laws shouldn’t be made in Brussels”. I’ve only spent a couple of days in Belgium and that was in Brussels so I’ve yet to see what I’m told are the beautiful towns of Bruges or Ghent but I’m sure that can be easily fixed.

I will say that one of the real joys of this series I seem to have set myself (whether I can find five from every other member of the EU) is exploring those countries’ music and discovering acts I’d otherwise have had no awareness of. So while Girls in Hawaii and the obvious honourable mention here, and to some extent dEUS, were familiar to me the joy of getting new music and culture into my ears continues and continues to highlight what an absolute twatting pile of excrement the ‘leave’ vote really was.

Girls in Hawaii – Here I Belong

One of the few Belgian bands I knew… my wife got the first Girls in Hawaii (2005’s From Here To There album while she was living in France and so it has a special place in my heart as it soundtracked a lot of our driving about that country. A couple of years after their second album their drummer was killed in a car accident and it was a few years before they regrouped. I’ve not yet checked out their new album but this is from their third album Everest and while not as upbeat as their usual offering I love the slow build and pace of this one.

Plastic Bertrand – Ça plane pour moi

Because who hasn’t heard this? It sold nearly a million copies and Plastic Bertrand sits as one of Belgium’s biggest selling musicians with 20 million plus sales.

dEUS – Quatre Mains

dEUS were the first Belgian-based indie band to sign to a major record label and this one kicks off their most recent (2012) album of French-language rock.

Gorki – Red Mijn Ziel Vooral

So the whole language thing in Belgium is a bit of an odd one – the country seems split between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking. So, in the interests of fairness, I was hunting for a Belgian band that sang in Dutch. My digging lead me to Gorki who kicked off in 1991 with their breakthrough ‘Anja’ and follow up ‘Mia’ which appears to have dominated Belgian charts for some time. They kept at it for another twenty years only coming to an untimely end in 2014 when their singer, Luc De Vos, was found dead in his working apartment from acute organ failure. I’d already been struck by the moving sound of this one before I read that far and it seems to add something to the sense of longing in his voice.

Cecilia::Eyes – For The Fallen

Belgian post-rock? Go on then. I’ve been enjoying Cecilia::Eyes’ second album the last couple of days, Here Dead We Lie which seems to have a strong world war two theme, think Pink Floyd’s Final Cut. On second thought – don’t, that one is pretty shit. Thankfully most of this genre is devoid of words so there’s no chance of Roger Waters droning on painfully over the top of it.

Honourable Mentions go to Mintzkov’s ‘Life After Fire‘, De Portables’ ‘Col Phillins‘ and, of course:

Django Reinhardt – I’ll See You In My Dreams

Django Reinhardt nearly lost his life when the caravan he and his wife lived in caught fire when he knocked over a candle on his way to bed. His right leg was paralysed, and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. They wanted to take his leg. He told em arseholes and left the hospital and was walking within a year. The use of his fingers didn’t return, though, so he developed  a new technique which become known as ‘gyspy jazz’ and, to quote Wikipedia, his ” innovations on the guitar helped elevated it above its prior position as usually only a rhythm instrument.”