Dave Grohl must sometimes feel as though he’s required to rock out. I mean, he found his fame as part of perhaps the most celebrated rock act of the ‘90s, a band that largely spent its time making its points via noise and catharsis. Many of the fans of that band followed him to his new band, a band that, at its start, was but a pale imitation of the tragically departed former. Since then, the latter band has changed and evolved into its own entity, a group whose artistic reach is nearly nil, yet who writes songs that hook into your brain, songs that drill themselves into your consciousness and stay there for days.
Foo Fighters, quite frankly, do mainstream singalong rock music better than anyone else going right now, and yet this means that they must, at times, fall into the constraints of their genre’s four-letter title and actually rock.
Still, even from the Foos’ first, self-titled album, it was obvious that Dave Grohl’s often mellow vocals and ingratiation-via-repetition songwriting style is more suited to the slow jams than the balls-to-the-wall screamers—“Big Me”, a short, pleasant little acoustic ditty, was perhaps the best song on the album for its simplicity and melodicism, not to mention that it was Foo Fighters’ biggest single. The Colour and the Shape followed, and “February Stars” and “Walking After You” went ahead and demonstrated just how achingly beautiful the quiet Foo Fighters songs could be. Time went on, the Foos kept releasing solid rock records with these beautiful ballads, until finally in 2005 they gave in completely to their acoustic side for the entire second disc of their 10-year anniversary album In Your Honor. It was a move that demonstrated the acknowledgement that, yes, there existed in Foo Fighters the potential for a seriously great “unplugged” record, and while that second disc may not have been the perfect acoustic album they may still have in them, it did have a few more moments of brilliance that’ll keep those more sensitive Foo types coming back for yet another helping.
Skin and Bones is a recording culled from the Foos’ largely acoustic (but by no means stripped-down) tour of this past year, and it goes a long way in showing just what that perfect acoustic Foo recording might have sounded like—it’s an album that takes every single one of those beautiful past hits, puts them alongside some of the more moving bits of the acoustic side of In Your Honor, tosses in a new tune, and comes out sounding like the perfect departure that never was. Live albums for rock ‘n roll bands are a tricky proposition, so often toeing the line between too-close-to-the-album-version uselessness and extended-jam wank, but this particular Foo experience is just different enough from the typical, hard-rock Foo sound to be interesting, while still remaining true enough to the originals as to make singing along not only possible but necessary.
The shadow of Nirvana looms large over Skin and Bones, not least in the slow, pensive strum of In Your Honor‘s “Friend of a Friend” (“He thinks he drinks too much / Cause when he tells his two best friends / ‘I think I drink too much’ / No one speaks”), but also in the reflective take on “My Hero” (complete with a beautiful piano solo) and, most startlingly, the presence of Nirvana B-side “Marigold”, the first widely-available song on which Grohl’s vocals took center stage—historically, it was the first hint of what Foo Fighters would one day become, and its presence here, in a set with those other two tracks (and particularly its back-to-back placement with “My Hero”), is a way of acknowledging his past for his audience. Still, it’s interesting to compare the studio B-side of “Marigold” to this live version—hearing the two back-to-back, hearing the detuned guitars of 1994 contrasting to the bright sound of 2006, you hear a man who has truly managed to “leave it all behind”, as he later says in “Times Like These”.
Of course, it’s not just Cobain’s shadow that provides the highlights for Skin and Bones—for one, many of the guests here turn in highly capable performances that make them integral to the experience. Petra Haden makes her mark singing the harmonies on “Big Me”, while her violin plays quiet chord-fillers for most of the rest of the show, and Rami Jaffee’s organ tones are what give “February Stars” that beautiful feel of a cold, dark night. In Your Honor‘s “Razor” happens to be the best way the show could have opened, with a slow-burn followed by an explosion, and the huge, huge hit that is “Everlong” is the perfect way to close it, with a song that leaves ‘em wanting more. For those who wish the electrics were plugged in, “Best of You” at least gives you the raw vocals that would come with those electrics, and damn if any release with a version of “Walking After You” isn’t worth owning.
Even the new song and title track, purportedly a hurried arrangement prepared especially for this tour, is engaging in its slow-building way, even if it feels a bit disposable when put next to the big hits on display through the rest of the disc.
So sure, there are songs missing that could have been here (particularly missed is “Still”, the lovely opener of the second disc of In Your Honor, which was actually played at this show but omitted from the CD), and it might have been nice to hear a few more studio rockers turn into acoustic shredders, but these are just nitpicks. Inadvertently, Foo Fighters have put out the most listenable, enjoyable disc of their career so far. Certainly, it’s not a bad achievement for a toss-off just-in-time-for-the-holidays live album.