Successful rock acts of the nineties can stave off marginalization in a number of ways: (1) change your message (Green Day); (2) allow motherhood to transform you into the snarling mad-dog of your youth (Sleater-Kinney); (3) bash the Republican party while employing their strategy of cultivating your existing fan base (Pearl Jam); or (4) stab yourself in the chest (Elliott Smith). The Foo Fighters have managed it through a franchise of radio-friendly songs that continue to define modern rock radio. Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols once said that when he sneezes a hit comes out. Dave Grohl has had these flu-like symptoms for more than a decade now.
The Foo Fighters have separated their fifth album, In Your Honor, into a disc of hard rock and a disc of acoustic songs. Like McCartney in “Helter Skelter,” Grohl tests the boundaries of his robust pipes on opener “In Your Honor.” Then he does it over and over again for each of the remaining nine tracks. “Best of You” adds to the substantial catalogue of Foo Fighter singles and measures up in intensity and catchiness to anything they’ve done before. Like an Old Navy commercial that parodies itself, it could have been easy at some point for the Foo Fighter animal to have eaten itself.
But Grohl keeps it fresh with his Queens of the Stone Age work and lets a little desert creep into the sun-scorched “End over End.” If there is a flabby piece (“Free Me”), Grohl’s scream is more than enough to compensate and cuts through the fat with his machete and with help from Chris Shiflett’s half of the Foo’s double-barreled guitar battering. In the Wilco documentary I am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jeff Tweedy said the two-guitar treatment was dead. But nobody makes pop like Wilco, and nobody makes guitar rock like the Foo Fighters.
The first disc gives fresh legs to the current guitar-rock revival, and its companion showcases Grohl’s competent voice over acoustic guitar strum in generous portions (a number of tracks breach the five-minute mark). The rock was catchy, but it’s the slow stuff that flips you on your axis with its depth. Grohl is just as comfortable making his bed on the edge of a knife in “Razor”: “Day after day/ cutting awaysweet and divine/ razor of mine.”
The percussion is sparse on this side, but Taylor Hawkins’s drums unexpectedly fuel the latter half of “Are you there?” “Virginia Moon” sounds like the name of a song ripped from a Neko Case album, and that’s before you hear what Grohl and Norah Jones have to say: “Dearest constellation, heaven surrounding you/ Stay there, soft and blue And now our shades become shadows in your light.”
That’s right, Norah Jones. If that’s mind-blowing to Foo diehards, it’s by no means the strangest combo of the year (see Bonnie Billy on Sage Francis’s A Healthy Distrust). Some of the acoustic tracks start to blend, but if it drags in a spot that’s what double albums do. This is about as lean as they get.
The prolificacy of the Foo Fighters has been remarkable and In Your Honor has some of their best stuff. Eleven years after the death of the Kurt Cobain, who could have known that the spindly muskrat in the background of your Nirvana poster would remain a towering rock structure? On “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain pined for a Leonard Cohen afterworld. Dave Grohl has lived the opposite. He should be Exhibit A for high school health teachers looking to prove to their students that it is actually possible to get high on life.
Editor’s note: A few readers have written to Prefix to say Jon Easley’s comment about Elliott Smith in this review was tasteless and wrong. We did not intend to make light of Smith’s death, and we’re sorry if the comment offended you. The intention was not to be disrespectful but to illustrate the point that, like Kurt Cobain and many others before him, artists who die early or commit suicide often solidify their iconic status. We apologize if that wasn’t conveyed clearly.
For more on this topic, plus the readers’ e-mails and a statement from Jon Easley, visit the Prefix forum. The subject is “Letters to the Editor: Elliott Smith comment distasteful.” More on the discussion can be found under the subject “Elliott ‘disrespected’ in Foo Fighters review.”