When did Dave Grohl stop getting the joke? I mean, really, remember “Big Me,” with its Mentos ad-spoofing video? Or the clip for “Everlong”, a series of surrealist dream sequences replete with cross-dressing band members and cartoon violence? True, the Foo Fighters’ cover of “Darling Nikki” isn’t particularly funny, but it’s at least kind of funny that they covered “Darling Nikki”, right? Though Kurt Cobain certainly possessed his own unique brand of dark humor, Grohl first caught our attention as grunge’s resident court jester, a less irritating Flea if you will, and that’s how many of us with two, three, or four as the first number in our age continue to fondly regard him.
Now, on their sixth studio album, Grohl and Company sound like Bob Seger fronting for your garden variety modern hard rock group, (or maybe, more specifically, the Metallica of St. Anger). Actually, they’re not quite as pleasing to the ear as that pairing might lead you to suspect, but they are every bit as humorless. The record is called Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace, as if the Foos were actively competing for the Most Self-Serious Album Title of the Year award. Included are such hilarious track names as “Let It Die”. Are they trying to rip off Feist, or are they just oblivious? More humor is in “Erase/Replace”. Trent Reznor called and he wants his depression back. “Long Road to Ruin”, “Summer’s End”, and “Ballad of Beaconsfield Miners”, each pack precisely as much joie de vivre as those turgid titles would seem to indicate. The last one, a two and half-minute toss-off sans vocals, sounds like Joanna Newsom performing a sound check. Except, once again, not quite as pleasing to the ear as that comparison might lead you to suspect.
Granted, it wasn’t like this happened overnight. The Foos didn’t transform instantaneously from that goofy quasi-novelty alt-rock group of the mid- to late ’90s into the stone-faced vets of Echoes. My point of realization came a few years ago, when they performed “Times Like These” on the Grammy telecast; they were clearly aiming for Cathartic Power Ballad, but in execution, stumbled blandly toward the middle of the road. It was a sobering moment when I suddenly found myself missing the harmlessly stupid “Learn to Fly”, a track that, during its fit of radio and MTV ubiquity, was incredibly annoying to me.
This leads, inevitably, to the question I’ve persistently pondered while listening to Echoes. Who exactly is this record for? Who does Grohl expect to buy and/or like the thing? You can probably cross Foos fans from back in the day off the list first. I paid good cash for their first two albums, the self-titled 1995 debut and 1997’s The Colour and the Shape. Both albums are good, but not great examples of ’90s alt-rock. I wouldn’t consider shelling out fifteen bucks for this one, or even taking the time to download it, had I come across tracks from it on the radio rather than receiving a copy to write this review. It’s dour enough but not flashy enough to appeal to high school kids who like “My Chemical Romance” and “Good Charlotte”. Twenty or 30-somethings who don’t think a whole lot about the music they consume might reflexively pick it up at Best Buy, but chances are, they’ll find it too abrasive, (Grohl’s lost his wit, but he still likes to rawk), and switch the Fray or James Blunt back on.
It’s like that “what happens when a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it” conundrum. What happens when a once-good, (and still not bad), rock band makes a boring but not awful record and no one pays too much attention? Admittedly, I imagine Echoes will sell okay, but I’d be shocked and awed if anyone, including the purchasers, gives it a second thought or bothers uploading it to their iPod. Maybe the Foos should take their own advice. One of the new record’s better songs is called “Cheer Up, Boys”. That sounds like the suggestion of a concerned fan for a band he or she used to actually care about. “Still I get this feeling”, Grohl sings, “No one will believe me”. Wonder why, Dave.