First Impressions: Concrete and Gold – Foo Fighters

This bloke from the Foo Fighters looks a bit like the drummer from that band Nirvana, doesn’t he?

Despite the PR, expecting the Foo Fighters to break new ground in 2017, some two decades plus into a career that has seen the band grow from a one-man project to stadium-filling rock heavyweights, would be optimistic to say the least. Since In Your Honour Dave Grohl, however, seems determined to try so we fans have been offered our Foo in separate acoustic and electric discs, a ‘serious musicians’ flavour, with ‘raw analogue’ toppings* and with added documentary options on the side. It’s still been Foo, though, no matter how much Mr Grohl has tried to spice it up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind, but, after There Is Nothing Left To Lose, there’s nothing that really sets aside, say, ‘The Pretender’, ‘All My Life’ or even ‘Rope’ as having been on different albums no matter the supposed narrative rules that rock’s smiliest ambassador has sought to apply to them.

Take Sonic Highways as an example – despite the concept and execution, there was nothing, really, to show in terms of sound or execution that differentiated its nine songs from any of the bands other mediocre cuts**. It’s as though there’s no concept or production technique that could change the established loud-quiet-loud-louder and colossal thump of the Foo Fighters at this stage of their career.

I found the concept behind Sonic Highways increasingly odd given how much time and effort the band had put into building their own studio (Studio 606 West) and HQ less than a decade before and seemingly abandoned after two albums – Wasting Light was recorded in Grohl’s garage. In fact, when Grohl declared that he already knew how the next Foo Fighters album would be recorded and that it was something so exciting that no band had ever done before…. I groaned a little inside. Why couldn’t they just get in their studio – or any studio – and apply themselves to the songs not to achieving some wacky concept?

Thanks to PJ Harvey, it seems, I’ve got my wish. Turns out that Dave Grohl’s ‘big idea’ for Foo Fighters Album 9 was to set up a studio on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and record it live in front of a 20,000 strong crowd. Shame, then, that discovering that PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project had been recorded in the same manner (albeit a far more English approach via an art installation in Somerset House) took the shine off the idea for him.

Instead Dave did what he describes as the most unexpected thing for his band to do and took the Foo Fighters into a big studio – EastWest Studios – and hired a producer to oversee their next album, gimmick-free. Well, I say that… this wouldn’t be a Foo Fighters album in the 21st Century if there wasn’t some form of ‘gimmick’ involved, would it? This time it’s the involvement of producer Greg Kurstin. Picked by Grohl for his work with his own band The Bird and the Bee, Kurstin is perhaps better known for his work with acts like Kelly Clarkson, Sia, Lily Allen, Ellie Goulding, Pink and that moaning banshee’s god-awful radio-melter ‘Hello’. Given the combination of a pop and rock heavyweight’s, the ‘gimmick’ of Concrete and Gold is that it’s being pitched as sounding like “Motörhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper.”

So…. does it? Of course it fucking doesn’t. Don’t be daft. But….. it takes a very very good stab at doing so and feels pretty much unlike anything else Dave and his merry men have done before. Yes, the sound is unmistakeably Foo but this time around the band are stretching out in ways they haven’t before and deliver plenty of unexpected and, frankly, great twists to deliver an album that offers  psychedelic, prog-metal, abstract, heavy and, yes, Beatles-esque shades against a Foo Fighters sound that is, for the first time in a long time, suitably balanced and mixed by a producer.

Kicking off with a short throwaway ripped apart by a heavy rocker will inevitably draw comparisons to The Colour and the Shape but ‘T-Shirt’, for all it’s brevity, is a superior song to ‘Doll’ and pushes Concrete and Gold‘s confidence and palette front and centre and – even after maybe a hundred listens at my son’s request – ‘Run’ is an out and out fucking BEAST that ranks as one of the Foos’ best:

‘Make It Right’ offers more than the straight-ahead rocker it initially suggests itself to be, there’s a funk of a groove behind it, unexpected chord changes and a surprising slab of background harmonies that when combined bring, to my mind that is, Aerosmith’s Draw The Line*** album. Initially I’d been slightly less impressed by ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’ when catching the videos of its live reveals but the album version, along with many of the tracks here, shows that – despite their straight ahead live mode – on Concrete and Gold the Foos have actually become a studio band with plenty of unusual-for-Foo song structures and production choices that blend so well. Take the strings that slip so unobtrusively into ‘The Sky…’ as to change a song type they’ve churned out many a time before into something that genuinely lifts skywards.

‘La Dee Da’ falls into the same category for me – I wasn’t impressed by it’s live rendering but, away from the bludgeoning and sonic flattening of radio too, on Concrete and Gold I ‘get it’. If it’s Fab Four you’re after, there’s one of em on ‘Sunday Rain’ – as Taylor Hawkins is too busy singing this spacey (seriously, check out his ‘Range Rover Bitch‘) rocker, Sir Paul McCartney plonked down the drums. Sequentially it’s a good fit because, to my ears, the preceding ‘Happy Ever After’ makes me think of ‘Blackbird’ or one of Macca’s early solo melodies.

‘Dirty Water’ is an early favourite for me; it brings forth sounds of both early Foo Fighters, a playful lightness and airy feel (and, again, some real Beatles tinges) but is bolstered by something sharper and more focused that comes from both a more practised song craft and production that, despite its length, it remains on track and charm. In that respect it serves as a strong summary of the album as a whole.

Concrete and Gold doesn’t quite achieve the premise of its PR but show me an album that does. 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.

I hadn’t pre-ordered this one but I’m already on my third listen of Concrete and Gold and haven’t skipped a track left. For all his efforts to make a ‘concept’ of an album, Dave Grohl has, when he wasn’t even trying to, created a fucking belter of a Foo Fighters album that works not just track-by-track but as an album in itself. Well worth a listen or three.

 

*I’ll put this out there: Wasting Light is the best Foo Fighters album to date.

**Concept over substance unfortunately applies to the album and I wouldn’t slip any of its tracks onto a ‘Best of’ comp.

***Underrated.

Currently Spinning

Uh-oh; a break in posting has occurred.

To be honest it goes back to being very busy with that thing called life.

The busy in question has, however, been soundtracked by some great music, new and not-so-new.

First the new…. I’ve been playing two new releases at a steady pace for the last two weeks, both of which arrived on the same morning. Strangely enough this was the day after the arrival of the not-so-new – a bumper weekend for the collection.

IMG_4076Not so long ago I’d dismissed Death Cab For Cutie. I first heard them – like so many – at the time that Transatlanticism was propelling them into a lot of speakers. Title and Registration and The New Year (Christ, how many myspace and xanga pages featured that on January 1st for years to come?) were my way in and still remain a regular listen.

However, having heard a few earlier albums I was then put off by Plans. It sounded too ‘OC’ and watered-down to my ears. I Will Follow You Into The Dark was far too obvious and over-played for my taste. I still don’t listen to anything from it. So I stopped paying attention to Gibbard and Co. This was a bit of a mistake, really.

In 2011 my wife surprised me with tickets to a DCFC show. I hadn’t listened to anything new of theirs for some time let alone have any idea what they would be like live. I was expecting a lot of quiet acoustic numbers. Another mistake. It was a great show – new material (the Codes and Keys album which I grabbed on vinyl from the merch stand) 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.

While not as sonically interesting as Codes and Keys, Kintsugi continues along the same path musically – more blips and electronic phases than acoustic strums. Lyrically the theme of separation seems to abound. It makes sense given the events between this album and the last – though I’ve now read that Gibbard is trying to be less self-referencing than ever- with high profile relationships ending and founding guitarist / producer Chris Walla saying farewell to the band.

To my ears Kintsugi isn’t as strong as Codes and Keys but contains many a cracker. The vinyl (very pretty) also included the CD which meant it went straight in the car and has been on steady repeat over the last couple of weeks on the commute and family drives. It holds up very well and reveals more with each listen.

Not really one for listening to on family drives – it’s a bit too intense for toddler ears – I’ve been hungrily devouring another new one on repeated listens on my commutes.

IMG_4073In my overview of last year’s listens I mentioned how I’d rather Godspeed You! Black Emperor was the going concern over Silver Mt Zion. When they came back in 2012 their Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was the best thing released that year. It’s still huge.

Accordingly I was pretty excited when news arrived – out of nowhere as is customary – of a new Godspeed album to drop in March.

Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress is perhaps their shortest. Certainly for a while. It’s their first not to feature any samples or field recordings, just the most direct, intense and powerful sound they’ve made. It’s amazing. Having created a genre and dominated they’ve now found a way to make a variation on their sound which still manages to completely hypnotise and compel.

I won’t be able to see them when they make their way over here on tour this year but I’m just so very glad that they’re a) making music again and b) that music is of such pulverisingly high a quality as Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress.

And the not-so-new… I was happy to find Ennio Morricone’s Film Music Volume 2 on vinyl on ebay. I was even happier to find it was exactly as described and played faultlessly.

IMG_4072When it comes to film soundtracks I have my favourites. While John Williams’ Jurassic Park score is high up on that list, I’ve long looked forward to being able to drop the needle on both the themes from Once Upon A Time In America and The Mission. Both of these are by Ennio Morricone, both of which are my favourite of his (yeah, yeah; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly etc etc… don’t move me in the same way) and both of which feature on here. Perfect – if it took me three listings to get hold of thanks to the ending times.

Quick list: Top Five Second Albums

Following the Top Five Debut text, I recently texted  two of my most music loving, list-compiling friends another simple message: “All time top five second albums?”

Only the one cross-over across the lists (Nevermind popping up on two of the three). Here, however, are mine (in no particular order, that’d be too hard):

Pixies – Doolittle

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’

In all likelihood still my favourite Dylan album.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Yes, I know; this is such a commercial choice… blah blah. Commercial, sell-out, whatever – the importance of this cannot be denied.

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

Foo Fighters – The Colour and The Shape

I still don’t think they’ve bettered this. Yes this makes my list a bit Grohl-heavy but what can you do?

 

The second album is important. A debut album tends to be more of a compilation of songs that the artist has been living / gigging / tinkering with for years prior to a deal. A second finds them more established, a bit more at home with the idea of recording and who they are and building on those foundations laid by the debut. I think….