Veteran rockers Foo Fighters join forces with pop producer Greg Kurstin, and the unexpected result is the finest album of their long recording career.
Dave Grohl seems all too aware of the Foo Fighters’ limitations. He’s tried different things over the years to apply some degree of diversity on the Foos’ basic motoric hard rock sound, with varying degrees of success. For 2005’s In Your Honor, the band recorded two discs of material, with the second being acoustic-based. Grohl approached 2011’s Wasting Light with the intent of giving it a raw, old-school sound by recording it in his garage with analogue equipment. On the band’s 2014 release Sonic Highways, they recorded each of the eight songs in different cities with different personnel. The result, as with the others, was yet another Foo Fighters album. You know what you’re gonna get -- a few sharp kickass rockers with some decent melodic hooks, and a host of mostly forgettable tracks that would comfortably fit on any album that band has ever recorded (apart from the demoish self-titled 1995 debut).
There’s no doubting Grohl’s prowess as a drummer and, hell, he seems like a downright nice, down to earth guy. But his voice is, let’s face it, pretty colorless, and for the most part, his songs aren’t the type that are really gonna stick in your head (with a handful of notable exceptions). Sonic Highways, in particular, took the band in a meandering and dull direction as the song lengths crept up, lacking focus and absent memorable melodies. It ended up as a slog to get through, a chore of a listen.
Yet the Foo Fighters keep rolling, and in fact, have performed an admirable service by helping to keep rock and roll a viable commercial commodity. Very few rock bands have been able to maintain the longevity and success of the Foo Fighters, and while they may not have a masterpiece under their belt at least, they haven’t tanked. Grohl’s enthusiasm and sincerity are palpable and infectious, and there’s always been a sense of humor (especially in the band’s often hilariously creative videos) that is endearing. They’re mainly a singles group, though, and -- until now -- the closest they’ve come to producing a great album from start to finish is 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, which has long been the apex of their catalog. Foo Fighters historically are consistently good, with a few spikes of greatness along the way (“Best of You”, “Everlong”, “The Pretender”, “I’ll Stick Around”, “Rope”, “Learn to Fly”, and a few others).
All that said, it makes tons of sense for Grohl to want to try and break the mold by working with pop hitmaker Greg Kurstin. An uber-talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Kurstin was half of the alt-pop duo Geggy Tah, best known for their 1996 hit “Whoever You Are”. Since then he’s made a career of songwriting, producing and/or performing on blockbusters by the likes of Adele (“Hello”), Kelly Clarkson (“Stronger”), Sia (“Chandelier”), Pink ("Blow Me One Last Kiss)", and many others. Kurstin was a shrewd choice to inject a bit of pep and commercial gloss into the band’s sound without softening it up. The end result -- Concrete and Gold -- is a pleasant surprise, to put it mildly.
Fans who might have feared that Grohl working with Kurstin might yield an overt grab for radio-friendly mainstream airplay needn’t have worried. Instead, the fruit of this unlikely pairing is an expansion of the Foos’ sound to incorporate shimmery harmonies, progressive rock themes and acoustic interludes that could be lifted straight from an early ‘70s Genesis album, and more than a few hints of ‘60s pop psychedelia. It’s not a departure dramatic enough that would throw the average fan for a loop, and the Foo Fighter’s hard-rocking edge is very much still present -- the album packs a sonic wallop. Without question, though, it is the band’s most colorful album after making a career of stark black and white. The crunchy riffs are still there, the occasional screams, the ferocious rhythm section, but it’s swirled with elements that bring the songs to life and render them more engaging, like electronic textures, richly layered vocals and effects. Grohl seems to have been inspired by the new approach and has delivered a top-notch batch of new material. It all comes together on Concrete and Gold in a way that’s new and exciting, an injection of freshness and innovation that the Foo Fighters needed.
The blistering first single “Run” was a tantalizing first taste when it appeared back in June and shot straight to #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. It was evident from that moment that the Foos had something different in store. “Run” has that restless energy and razor-sharp edge that exemplifies the band’s best work, with a relentlessly powerful riff and distorted screams that give the song a bit of an industrial vibe -- Foo Fighters mind-melding with Nine Inch Nails while channeling a futuristic version of Black Sabbath. “Run” is a breathless rock epic, and will undoubtedly go down as one of the band’s greatest singles.
Its introduction on the album is “T-Shirt”, which begins with an acoustic passage and then erupts into a torrent of ‘70s-inspired harmonies over massive power-chords, segueing right into “Run” like something from a classic Queen album. You will not be able to resist turning it the fuck up, and as the album proceeds, there is no incentive to lower the volume, no matter how much the neighbors wanna bitch and moan. Let ‘em; it’s worth the grief.
The savage second single, “The Sky Is a Neighborhood”, is equally thrilling. Built around a thunderous bass line and one of Grohl’s most convincingly unhinged vocals, “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” occupies a much grander, and darker, space than is typical for the Foo Fighters. There is an urgency here, implicitly inspired by the surreal division and turmoil that has gripped the country, that expresses the anxiety of our times with gravity and real grit. It’s on an emotional plane that is much deeper and more feverishly intense than anything the band has delivered in the past.
“La Dee Da” is an aural hurricane, drums that slam through the skull and Grohl’s brain-searing screams punctuating a perilously frantic four minutes of catharsis. There is nothing held back, and it’s exciting to hear. “Dirty Water” is buoyed by sweet harmonies in the acoustic-flavored verses only to give way to thick fuzz-toned guitar riffs that bring an air of bleak foreboding as Grohl screams in deftly woven layers of vocal, “Bleed dirty water / Breathe dirty sky!” over and over again. Concrete and Gold is going to be one of those albums that fans look back on decades from now that help capture the insidious mania of our times, much like we look back now on music that encapsulates other periods of national crisis. It’s an unflinching reflection of the broiling turmoil that is America circa 2016/17.
There is a retro underpinning running through the entire record, yet somehow it’s simultaneously the most modern-sounding album the Foos have ever recorded. The hooks are sharper, the sound more diverse and wider in scope than any of their previous work. Grohl needed to branch out, and here he brings in an unlikely cast of collaborators that help augment the band’s sound without seeming gimmicky or cheap. Grohl and his mates are fearless on Concrete and Gold, completely willing to defy convention.
Would anyone have imagined in the ‘90s that Justin Timberlake of ‘NSync and Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men would appear on a Foo Fighters album? How about Paul McCartney on drums? “Sunday Rain” sounds like a lost Wings track, McCartney’s loping groove supporting a ‘70s classic-rock pastiche that, as unlikely as it seems, works to perfection. It’s “Everlong” meets “Let Me Roll It” with swirling keyboard effects and Grohl’s multi-layered, whispery vocals adding a dreamy quality that’s punctuated by savage guitar riffs. The chorus on “Sunday Rain” is perhaps the most arresting melody that Grohl has yet unveiled, and they would be foolish not to release it as a single.
The title track and album closer, “Concrete and Gold” is a grim, psychedelic death-march with a simple, plodding rhythm that gives way to surreal acoustic passages woven with eerie effects -- a blend of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” or perhaps the slower bits of “Dogs” -- that then boil over with slow-burning molten guitar riffs, tense and dramatic, until blazing out in a desperate wail of feedback. It’s an expected ending to an album that confounds and confronts expectations at every turn.
Foo Fighters have come a long way, and it’s a journey they needed to make. The worst sin in rock and roll is being dull, and while the Foos have never failed to deliver at least a few pointed whip-cracks on each album, this time they’ve put together an entire record’s worth. Concrete and Gold is ambitious, with a nothing-to-lose attitude, an audacious creative turn that works on every level. They’ve never sounded this inspired. The album is immediately engaging as, for the first time in their career, they scramble their traditional sound in a meaningful way without losing their core identity.
Concrete and Gold is an apt title. The hard rock is still there but finally there’s a bit of a shimmer and glow, something the band absolutely needed lest they continue treading water. It’s a career-capper as unexpected as it is welcome. Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters have been journeymen, always hovering on the edge of the mainstream and trying hard to be relevant, and as with many bands, the key is in the collaboration. The right mix makes magic, and with Dave Grohl and company joined by Greg Kurstin, the result is nothing less than spellbinding. Concrete and Gold is easily the finest album of the Foo Fighters’ 20-plus year recording career, an artistic breakthrough that hopefully marks the start of an exciting new era in the band’s continued musical odyssey.