“I don’t owe you anything” screams Dave Grohl over and over in “I’ll Stick Around,” and it sounds at once like a desperate chant against evil thoughts, a bitter testimonial to history and the needed disposal of some traumatic baggage. “I want out/I’m alone and I’m an easy target,” he worries two songs later.
The spotlight is hardly an ideal hiding place, but maybe the former Nirvana drummer (whose career began in Washington DC, in Dischord punk band Scream and such lesser luminaries as Dain Bramage) is just facing his fears. Stepping out from behind the relative safety of his monstrously battered kit, Grohl writes, plays guitar and sings in the Foo Fighters, an ambitious return to active duty following Nirvana’s sudden death in 1994.
Recorded before the band’s actual formation, Foo Fighters is entirely Grohl’s doing save for a bit of guitar playing by Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli. (The quartet’s final lineup, pictured but not named on the record, includes guitarist Pat Smear, originally of Los Angeles’ legendary Germs, a solo artist and, most recently, a touring member of Nirvana, plus the former rhythm section of Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate: bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith.) On record and in concert, Grohl emerges as a potent frontpunk with a limited vocal range, good songs, ample enthusiasm and too much imagination to simply replicate the signature sound of the band that made him famous.
Roaring with guitar distortion like a fission furnace threatening imminent disaster and underpinned by a seismically massive bottom, Foo Fighters clearly takes some of its stylistic cues from Nirvana. The lunging bass, oblong chord progression, abrupt time shift and vocal style of “Alone+Easy Target” are unmistakable; “This Is a Call” and “I’ll Stick Around,” both written in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, manifest his influence on Grohl’s music. But other songs — the quiet, harmony-tinged “Big Me,” the lightly sung verses of “Good Grief,” the distorto-pop reverie of “Floaty,” the overload frenzy of “Weenie Beenie,” the swinging bop of “For All the Cows,” the metallic riff rip of “Wattershed” — push the album beyond Grohl’s past, outlining a more diverse approach Foo Fighters have yet to fully realize. The rock-solid delivery of the simple tunes, which have sketchily significant lyrics and catchy hooks, makes them seem like more than they are, and that won’t wash twice. Having made a successful lift-off, Foo Fighters still has to find and reach an ultimate target.
After some drama sent Goldsmith back to Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl played drums on all but three tracks of The Colour and the Shape. Opening with the quiet “Doll,” the record runs a rollercoaster course in the wake of Grohl’s divorce, from the rocking, harsh “Monkey Wrench,” “My Hero,” taken by many to be an encomium to Cobain, and the punkish Who homage “Up in Arms.” The record takes a soft detour towards the end with the gorgeous “Everlong” and “Walking After You,” which was later re-recorded for the X-Files album. Without losing its Nirvana chromosomes, Foo Fighters were on the way to establishing their own identity. This album was the start of something great.
A new drummer, former Alanis Morrissette sideman Taylor Hawkins, joined and guitarist Pat Smear left. Former Scream / Wool guitarist Franz Stahl had a cup of coffee in the band, but finally Chris Shiflett, formerly of No Use for a Name, arrived after There Is Nothing Left to Lose was finished. The recording process (at Grohl’s home studio in Virginia) was obviously stressful, but there’s no evidence of that in the music. Calmer than its predecessor, the album features swooning songs like “Next Year” and light pop like the hit “Learn to Fly.” The hard edge is there as well, in the ripping “Live-In Skin,” “Breakout” and “Stacked Actors,” which could be about Courtney Love.
In 2002, after Taylor Hawkins’ London hospitalization in 2001 and Grohl’s gigs in Tenacious D and Queens of the Stone Age (on Songs for the Deaf), Foo Fighters produced One by One. While it begins with the thunderous “All My Life,” the record is a colossal disappointment. Other than the “Everlong”-like “Times Like These,” the drum-less “Tired of You” (with guest guitarist Brian May of Queen) and the standard rocker “Have It All,” the band is on autopilot.
Three years later, after jumping on the John Kerry bandwagon, the band came back with an ambitious two-CD set, In Your Honor. With one disc of hard, loud songs and one of quiet acoustic songs, the Foos were definitely trying something new. From the blistering title track, the rock disc goes from the hardest extremes of the band’s sound (“DOA” and “Free Me”) to the quieter aspect of the band’s intensity (“Best of You” and “The Deepest Blues Are Black”). The band’s heaviest album to date showed its power to great effect. The second disc is nothing special. While “Another Round” and “Miracle” glow with a sheen not seen since Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, “Cold Day in the Sun” and “Over and Out” just don’t do anything. The highlight is “Virginia Moon,” an unlikely duet with Norah Jones which revels in the interplay between their voices and orchestration by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
After touring extensively behind In Your Honor, the band did a 2006 acoustic tour which is documented on Skin and Bones, recorded live in Los Angeles. A noble experiment that doesn’t pay off finds the band augmented by Smear, a percussionist, violinist Petra Haden (ex-that dog.) and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffe. Ultimately, while expanding on “Big Me,” “Next Year” and “Times Like These,” the record isn’t very good. In addition to one new song (“Skin and Bones”), the nugget here is the first Foo Fighters recording of “Marigold,” a Grohl-sung Nirvana B-side circa In Utero.
With an immediate return to form in “The Pretender,” Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace is the Foos at their hardest-rocking. The album balances loud and soft, from “Long Road to Ruin,” “Erase/Replace” and “Let It Die” (with a Smear solo) to “Stranger Things Have Happened,” “Come Alive” and “Summer’s End.” The instrumental “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” showcases Grohl’s acoustic guitar chops, while the piano-driven “Home” provides a lovely ending to an excellent album.