Artist: Foo Fighters
Album: Concrete and Gold
In Brief: Content-wise, it’s nice to have more to work with than on Sonic Highways, but a strong front half sets up far too lofty expectations for an anemic back half. Foo Fighters can still rock my face off with the best of them, but their softer/more experimental side doesn’t quite hold my attention like I wished it did.
Reviewing a band that has more or less achieved “elder statesmen” status in the mainstream rock scene is tricky when I’m still relatively new to that band. Foo Fighters have been around for over two decades now, eclipsing that other alt-rock band that originally made Dave Grohl famous (c’mon, you know the one) at least in terms of longevity. Yet I’m still relatively new to the band, having only come on board as a fan after hearing their 2014 album, Sonic Highways. Obviously I was aware of the Foo Fighters since the early days – I’d heard a few songs of theirs on the radio and gotten mild to moderate enjoyment out of them. I just never bothered to check out a full album of theirs until a few years ago. This means I don’t have those two whole decades’ worth of history to compare a new record of theirs to. But I think there’s something to be said for a band who can come up with interesting enough material to hook new fans this late in the game, and that’s the perspective I’m coming from when attempting to review their new full-length album, Concrete and Gold – that of a relatively new listener just giving an honest reaction, without knowing if it’s retreading familiar ground or if it’s genuinely something new for the band. All I can say for sure is, they seem to be one of the most consistently hard-working, genuine rock bands still enjoying a high profile in a modern music landscape where rock and roll may as well be “over” in terms of popularity, and whatever flaws they may exhibit, I strongly admire them for still going strong after all these years.
Unlike Sonic Highways, which from what I’ve gathered, seemed to be a bit of a departure that didn’t satisfy the appetites of a lot of their long-time fans, Concrete and Gold doesn’t seem to come with a gimmicky concept uniting its songs. The idea of recording each song in a different city excited me as a geography geek curious about how the musical culture of each place might affect the song, but for a lot of folks it seems like that record came up short on content as a result of sticking to its gimmick, while Concrete and Gold is more of a conventional album recorded in a consistent setting. Grohl had been recovering from the leg injury that sidelined the band from touring for a good chunk of 2016, and I guess when he came out of his self-imposed exile and was ready to make music again, he and the band wanted simply to do what they did best without any self-imposed limitations on it. The gimmick is that there’s no consistent gimmick this time. While there were a few fierce rockers at the beginning of Sonic Highways, it was more of a “mood” record overall, and this new one by comparison seems determined to remind you right out of the gate that the band hasn’t abandoned their hard-driving energy. This may honestly be the first time I’m hearing the Foos in their natural habitat, and for the most part, I like what I’m hearing and it makes me think, gee, I really need to dig back into their discography and hear what I’ve been missing all of these years.
Now that’s not to say Concrete and Gold is wall-to-wall rockers, seething with excitement and rage, with little variance or experimentation. It’s still a reasonably diverse record, with some surprising mellower moments, and even a few songs that turn a corner from what sounded like a more downbeat experiment into something a bit more hard-driving. But the band makes the mistake of front-loading this record with potential hits, to the point where out of 11 tracks, the 4 or 5 that test my patience a bit more are almost all in the back half. The result is a record that (if you’ll forgive the bizarre half-song it starts with) starts off with a hell of a sprint and then ends up limping toward the finish line. (Is that analogy a case of “too soon”, considering Dave’s injury? Regardless, you get the idea.) This is an unexpected thing for me to say, considering that the songs which intrigued me the most on Sonic Highways sounded like they were unconventional detours for the band, while the harder rockers were pretty good, just not what really got me going. It helped that there was a guest artist on each track of Sonic Highways, helping to add a little bit of unique flavor to the Foo Fighters sound, so maybe this album could have benefitted from a little collaboration as well?
And there’s the irony. This album too has its share of noteworthy guest musicians – certainly not on every track, but enough that it seems like a subtle gimmick in and of itself. They’re just sort of… hidden. You wouldn’t pick up on this with a casual listen. You’d have to know the stories behind some of the songs or else read the liner notes. (Is anyone else still geeky enough to do that? Do people still buy physical albums these days? I mean, other than the vinyl-collecting hipsters, of course.) These contributors are “noteworthy” in that they’ve done something to earn them fame elsewhere and thus their names, or at least the names of past projects they were involved in, are recognizable. What they add to these songs, is sadly not. Play this album for a fan of Justin Timberlake or The Beatles or Boyz II Men, and I doubt they’d be able to pinpoint right away what song one of their musical heroes contributed to. I could be wrong about this fact, but it’s almost like knowing these people are involved was a distraction, and the Foos wanted to allow these people to participate without letting the guest artists steal the spotlight, as they occasionally did on Sonic Highways. Perhaps it’s good in the sense that pretty much every high profile album release in just about any genre these days has these big crossover guest appearances shoehorned in, often in such a way that it makes no sense to fans of either genre – it’s just a doubly marketable single because it has twice the star power on it. I can respect the Foos not wanting to draw as much attention to their collaborations here… but in that case, why bother? Did someone just drop by the studio, finally making good on one of those “Hey, we should work together sometime!” promises that creative types make to each other all the time, knowing full well they’ll probably never follow through? And when they did, Dave and the gang figured it’d be cruel to turn them down? I don’t get it. It really shouldn’t be such a distraction, but for better or worse, that’s how I’m going to remember Concrete and Gold – as a pretty good, but naggingly inconsistent rock record that’s incredibly hot when it’s firing on all cylinders, but that seems a bit confused about its identity when the band tries to explore a little bit off of their beaten path.
The intro track feels like a bit of a false start. It’s only a minute and a half, so it’s flaws shouldn’t really be worth getting worked up about, especially since the mini-climax of the song is an effective little blast of heavy guitars and richly layered backing vocals. But I hate, hate, HATE the faux lo-fi verse at the beginning of it. The whole “Make your track sound like a cheap demo, and then startle ’em by suddenly making things louder just when they’ve turned the volume up to hear what the hell’s going on” trick is played out at this point, and the result of it is that I never bother turning the volume up, and whatever is making Dave Grohl want to keep his T-shirt clean is inconsequential to me as a result. You want me to care about your lyrics, sing ’em at a reasonable volume!
The first full-length song on the album, which is also its first single, really needs no introduction. I mean that literally. “T-Shirt” is useless and does nothing to segue into this track in a meaningful way. And the smooth guitar intro to this song, leading the unsuspecting listener to assume this will be more of a melodic rocker, serves as an intro in its own right, which makes far better use of the whole “soft to loud” dynamic because you can still actually hear the soft part. As Dave starts singing “Wake up, run for your life with me”, and Taylor Hawkins‘ drums begin to pound away, you can anticipate that things are about to get a whole lot louder, but that still doesn’t prepare you for the heavy riffs, pummeling percussion, and Dave’s absolutely fierce scream that propel the song forward at breakneck speed. It’s pure energy at some points, yet the melodic aspects of the song are strong enough that you’ll remember it has a tune and it isn’t all sheer brute force. What really strikes me about this one is how well it balances the seething rage Dave is expressing at our country turning into a total madhouse before his very eyes, and his defiant that there is somewhere to run, that there is a more perfect life ahead if we take action. There’s a time and place for songs that are totally bummed out about the current state of things, but this one gets me pumped. “Run” is a fantastic song that deserves to go down in history as a Foo Fighters classic, and as an example of life being breathed back into the rock & roll genre in 2017. I’m glad it seems to be getting the recognition it deserves in the music industry. (It also got a Grammy nomination. But I won’t hold that against the song.)
3. Make It Right
This track’s machine-like guitar riff is the kind of thing that could get repetitive, if it weren’t so darn catchy and if the band didn’t play off of its starts and stops as well as they do. It’s yet another example of how well this band balances force and melody when they’re at the top of their game. I suppose that riff can’t repeat throughout the entire song, which is why the band changes things up a bit rhythmically and melodically when they get to the chorus, and the one downside of starting that strong is that the chorus feels a little sluggish by comparison – they haven’t actually reduced speed, but I can’t say it’s as strong of a hook by comparison. Dave’s ranting a little more generally about adversity here, saying it’s something people need in order to grow, but it also seems like he’s expressing a desire to not waste the opportunity to learn from it and to make much-needed changes. “I don’t f*ckin’ need another martyr” he says in the angriest line of the song – basically, he’s not gonna lay down and die just to be someone else example of how messed up things have gotten. He’s gonna fight back instead. I love the tough attitude of the song, though I can’t figure out how its high-profile guest vocalist, the aforementioned Mr. Timberlake, really fits into it. I guess he’s audible during the chorus? he could be singing backing vocals throughout the whole thing, for all I know, but the idea of a contrast between his higher-pitched croon and Dave’s tough-guy bark doesn’t really come to fruition here. Dave dominates the song to the point where Timberlake feels wasted. Perhaps if they performed this live together, I could get a better grasp of what Justin was actually contributing. Still, you could come into this one knowing nothing about Timberlake’s involvement and still walk away from it impressed. He isn’t needed to make this one kick ass at its most intense moments.
4. The Sky Is a Neighborhood
The second single feels like something different for the Foos – at least compared to what I’ve heard so far. It’s got a bit of a playful bounce to it, but also a sense of rawness, since the beat implies a rigid “stomp-stomp-clap” like the good old days of Queen‘s “We Will Rock You”, but the gaps between those beats and the overall syncopated nature of it suggest something a little looser and more “jammy”. Foo Fighters are not a jam band, but this feels like the kind of thing they could have cooked up by inviting a few friends into the room to sing half-drunken background vocals, and just riffing on that primal beat for a while and seeing what they came up with. It’s still heavy enough to kick ass, without being as claustrophobic as the most intense moments of the previous two songs. It took me a couple tries to get used to it, but I really love it now. The lyrics feel like they came from a special corner of Dave’s brain – just pondering the universe as though the Earth was the noisy downstairs neighbor of the Heavens, raging against the sky and “banging on the ceiling, keep it down!” The gang vocals the song are what really sell it – the actual words are a bit of a mouthful, perhaps not the easiest thing for a crowd to learn and sing along to, but it sounds like everyone’s having such a blast that it seems almost compulsory to join in and muddle your way through it regardless. Alison Mosshart of The Kills contributes guest vocals here – but with so many voices being layered (which is one of my favorite aspects of this song’s production, and the album’s in general), you probably wouldn’t pick hers out in particular. Again, it’s a very modest use of a guest appearance. These songs aren’t really about spotlighting outside talent.
5. La Dee Da
Both lyrically and musically, this is one of the most bizarre tracks on the album. It’s also one of the fiercest rockers I’ve heard from the Food so far. I like it even though it throws me for a loop. Much like “Make It Right”, they’ve mined a killer riff for all it’s worth, though this time around, the beat of the song keeps shifting around that riff, to the point where I can’t tell if Taylor Hawkins is deliberately playing a beat behind at some point or if guitarists Chris Shiflett, Pat Smear, and of course Grohl are conspiring to sabotage him by all jumping a beat ahead in unison. It gives the song a slightly disorienting feeling that continually makes me wonder if I’ve just got the count all screwed up in my head. It’s great fun, actually. These are some of Dave’s missed pissed-off, provocative lyrics, as he tells off someone whose vision of the world is so full of pretty but meaningless promises that it’s useless to him, and he doesn’t appreciate their moralizing about how he should live his life. This leads to the kind of screaming in the chorus that could peel paint from the walls: “HAAAAAAATE! If I want to! LOOOOOOOVE! Who I like!” It’s a pure adrenaline rush, delivered without compromise or apology. The lines “Psychic Television and Death in June/Jim Jones painting in a blue bedroom” seem to imply that he sees right through this person’s cult-like devotion to a false narrative of religious faith, and it especially stings when he retorts “Keep your pretty crosses to yourself” near the end. Given that a lot of his anger on this album is directed toward the people who felt it was their duty to get Trump elected despite the man paying the thinnest of lip service to their doctrinal viewpoints, I think the verbal smackdown is justifiable. I could do without the bit of studio chatter at the end of the song where someone is groaning that it’s “Too much!”, but that’s a really minor issue.
6. Dirty Water
Since this album’s delivered a pretty consistent burst of heavy, rocking energy in the last several tracks, just about any attempt to break from that pattern and try something a little more subtle was going to feel like a letdown by comparison. I try not to hold it against this song that its guitar licks and especially Dave’s vocals feel downright anemic for the first half of it. I know it’s intentional. He appears to be singing from a point of view of a victim of the Flint water crisis, who has poisonous lead in their bloodstream as a result of government negligence and who vows to be a “natural disaster” to the people in charge who put him and his loved ones in this predicament. It’s not the subtlest of political metaphors, but once again, I’m on his side in terms of finding the rage justifiable. It’s just that the song doesn’t really get around to fully expressing the rage until about halfway through, when suddenly the guitars and drums get heavier and Dave goes into a loud, but repetitive bridge of “Bleed dirty water, breathe dirty sky”. He’s lost the melodic angle of the song at that point, and it just feels like he’s growling the same notes again and again, and it starts to grate on my nerves just when the song is trying to build up to the big finish. Hearing him finally come back to the chorus and give it a stronger vocal treatment is rewarding, though. The song intentionally misdirects the listener at first, only to finish with more of the sound a Foo Fighters fan might expect. It’s a gamble that runs the risk of not paying off due to how long it takes to get there.
I’ve mentioned before that the song which got me into Foo Fighters was an unusual one – the mellower, more downtrodden “Subterranean” from Sonic Highways. This song feels like it’s aiming for something similar at the outset, with its off-kilter rhythm and its depressing-as-hell lyrics about a woman who seems to have nothing but sadness and fear and rage in her DNA, but here the group exercises a bit more musical muscle. This gives the band a chance to do odd things with the bass and percussion, drawing attention to the despairing, minor-key chord progression they’ve put together, but it’s got the payoff of Dave singing his heart out in apparent sympathy for how messed up this woman’s life is in the chorus. So it runs the gamut from moody and weird to fiery and rocky, without it seeming like these pieces are awkwardly put together. You’d probably never peg this as a potential single, but there’s something in its unconventional approach that really resonates with me deep down. Some days I just can’t get this one out of my head.
8. Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)
I’ve made it known on several occasions that when rock bands mostly used to playing the electric guitar suddenly go acoustic, the results can often sound far beneath the level of talent listeners would expect. I feel no differently about this startlingly casual strum-along. It’s not that I mind the sudden campfire ballad coming out of nowhere – I’m even affable to the strings working their way into it despite it being a bit of a cliche. It’s just that once again, this is a bit of an anemic approach, and just when some shuffling drums come in and one of the guitarists goes for a subdued solo on the electric, that’s when they decide to fade the song out. The low energy level of this song really doesn’t match Dave’s apocalyptic lyrics about all the superheroes being gone and the powers that be apparently counting down to a war in which they will completely annihilate each other and take the rest of the world with them. I don’t mind at all that these lyrics are super depressing. They give voice to a fear that I think a lot of us have lurking in the backs of our minds these days, as Trump seems hell-bent on kicking every possible hornet’s nest that could drag us all into World War III. I do mind that these words are given such an unassuming musical treatment, without even a wink and a nudge being tossed our way to indicate that they’re aware of the dissonance and playing it up for some sort of grim humor.
9. Sunday Rain
Hands down, the most baffling guest appearance on this album is that of Sir Paul McCartney, who plays drums on this track. I realize your head could have just exploded for like three different reasons upon reading that sentence, because (a) Paul’s known more for playing bass and writing songs than he is for playing drums, (b) out of the two Beatles who are still alive, Ringo Starr was their actual drummer, (c) Dave Grohl’s whole claim to fame before the Foo Fighters even got started was that he was a kick-ass drumer, and (d) Taylor Hawkins, who sits behind the drum kit most of the time in this band, is no slouch either. It makes sense that Taylor is not on drums for this one, as he wrote the song and sings lead on it, and usually the arrangement is for Dave to fill in on drums when that happens. But I guess they had a chance to get Paul on a track, and he wanted to play the drums, so who were they to argue with music royalty? I’m not saying he’s bad at it, or sounds like he’s never done this before, because Paul’s played a bit of everything over the years. And I totally respect that, for one of the granddaddies of modern rock as we know it, Paul seems to be genuinely down for whatever where younger bands who probably owe him a debt of gratitude are concerned. He doesn’t give off that air of being above it all, as far as I can tell. He just shows up and has fun. But enough about Paul. If you heard the competent, but somewhat rote, drumming on this six minute long, mid-tempo track, and thought there was nothing really special going on in that department because you didn’t know it was Paul, that would actually be the more reasonable reaction. I hate that I just burned an entire paragraph talking about him, actually, because I do enjoy the song for other reasons. I’m gonna start a new paragraph and move on.
“Sunday Rain” sounds nothing like anything else I’ve heard from the Foo Fighters, largely thanks to having Taylor Hawkins on lead vocals, but there’s a murky, rainy-day Britpop sort of feel to it that I find interesting. It takes a few listens to fully get sucked into its easygoing groove, but the slow burn works for me. It has a few moments where the guitars get to really sing or the vocals have a little more gusto to them. Heck, I don’t even mind the auxiliary percussion sounds that kind of sound like dripping water. They’re a cliche from a completely different genre (didn’t R&B do that a lot back in the day), but they set the mood well enough. The “Sunday rain” appears to be some sort of an addiction that a man feels he’s drowning in as his partner becomes more and more aloof. It honestly has nothing to do with anything, both in terms of the lyrics and in terms of its placement on an actual Foo Fighters album. But I can imagine it’s a song by a completely different band, and get a good deal of enjoyment out of it, at least until a bit of unrelated noodling on the piano sneaks in over the final fade-out just to give it that “messing around in the studio with no clear direction” vibe. That’s like, a tangent to a tangent. This record is really going off the rails, isn’t it?
10. The Line
Getting things back on track is a much more straightforward rocker, which to my ears sounds like a number of radio-friendly Foo Fighters tracks I’ve heard over the years and thought, “This is enjoyable enough, but I don’t really feel compelled to go listen to their album.” The guitar work is strong enough, the beat is steady and fast-paced, the emphasis is on melody with some hints of Dave’s screaming at a few points, but nothing that would really risk this song’s chances at being a follow-up single. Perhaps that’s my problem with it. It’s nice and all, and after the last few head-scratchers, it’s probably the kind of thing longtime Foo Fighters fans were begging for. But it doesn’t really hit any of my sweet spots. It’s just a nice little palette-cleanser. I guess the upside is that if this is filler, it’s a lot stronger than most bands’ filler. I don’t get bored with it… but I don’t particularly find myself looking forward to it, either.
11. Concrete and Gold
Stylistically speaking, the back half of this record has been a bit of a bumpy ride. The title track, unfortunately, drives this record straight into the ditch. I can appreciate the slow, heavy, psychedelic vibe they’re going for – at first I’m intrigued by the sullen, almost-whispered vocals, the dark and eerie buzz of the guitars, and the washed-out cymbals. But even when they bring in a heavier chorus, I feel this nagging sense of being thoroughly unimpressed by all of the creative work that was put into this song. I think it’s pretty awesome that, not only did they see fit to include vocals from such an unlikely source as Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, they actually made an entire choir out of his voice to layer the chorus on top of. They pretty much Enya‘d an R&B singer to use as the backing track on a stoner rock song. That’s some next-level genre-hopping, right there. But what should be a forceful and disorientingly weird mixture of sounds falls flat. The melody of this song feels like a continuous shrug. It goes nowhere. The song doesn’t climax in any way because there are, paradoxically, so many layers that none of them really stand out. It’s a great idea that utterly fails in the execution. And just when you start to justify to yourself, “Well, it’s a five minute song, maybe they’re going for the slow burn only to hit us with a really weird surprise in the final minute?”, you then realize as they slam on one last chord that most of that final minute is taken up by the gradual sound of that chord fading out into nothingness. Then, after a bit of dead air, for no reason other than to be totally obnoxious, someone curses out the sound engineer: “F*ck you, Darrell!” Ugh, seriously, guys? Putting “funny” inside jokes in your “hidden track” slot is so 1990s.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Make It Right $1.25
The Sky Is a Neighborhood $1.75
La Dee Da $1.50
Dirty Water $.75
Happy Ever After (Zero Hour) $.25
Sunday Rain $1.25
The Line $1
Concrete and Gold –$.25
Dave Grohl: Lead vocals, guitars, drums
Chris Shiflett: Guitars, backing vocals
Pat Smear: Guitars, backing vocals
Nate Mendel: Bass
Taylor Hawkins: Drums, backing vocals
Rami Jaffee: Keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: