Foo Fighters: One By One

Foo Fighters
One By One

The official take on this latest Foo Fighters release seems to be that Grohl and associates are back to their old school, hard-rockin’ selves after the comparatively low key feel of their last album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose. I’ll remind readers that the most out-of-character moments involved the use of keyboards, so let’s not get too excited about the Foo’s alleged return to their roots. They didn’t ever stray that far.

That said, Dave Grohl’s recent behavior does seem to indicate a certain nostalgia for simpler days. Take for example his stint with the stoner-metal band Queens of the Stone Age. Grohl plays drums on all but one track on QOTSA’s latest album Songs For the Deaf and also toured with the band. It isn’t just that sitting behind the kit again gave him some time out of the spotlight, QOTSA grew out of the legendary underground metal band Kyuss, and their sound is much harder and rawer than the Foo Fighters, even in their most thrashy moments. Let’s not forget that Grohl grew up playing hardcore in D.C. — even if the Foo Fighters were always already an MTV band (more on that later), their street cred to popularity ratio is better than average, if only because their members used to be in Nirvana (duh) and Sunny Day Real Estate.

Speaking of MTV, the Foo Fighters have also broken with tradition with the video for the first single off of One By One, “All My Life”. Although the band is famous for their send-up videos (my favorite is the Mentos commercial parody), the “All My Life” video (directed, BTW, by Grohl) is mostly straight performance shot in black and white. Similarly, the album art features simple black, white, and red drawings of hearts, and headshot individual photographs of the band in sepia.

On the surface, therefore, the Foo Fighters appear to have succumbed to the current demand for “edge” — a cultural trend, by the way, that toppled Britney and raised Avril. So that’s the superficies, but what about the proverbial meat of the matter? Well, gosh darn it, this is a Foo Fighters album. It is therefore tight and competent in both musical and production value, lyrically intelligent, rhythmically driving, and yet — like the boyfriend who seems perfect but just doesn’t give you butterflies — ultimately unsatisfying. I’m not saying there’s no heart. There’s heart. I’m not saying there’s no chops. I’m just saying that all of these parts don’t add up into anything more than themselves, and that’s a shame.

The first song (and first single) “All My Life” is a good, anthematic leadoff, which is pretty typical for the Foo Fighters. Like most of the rest of One By One, the theme is not so much love’s frustrations as the elusiveness of ultimate contentment. “All my life I’ve been searching for something”, Grohl chants over a one-note, rhythmic drone, “Something never comes never leads to nothing / Nothing satisfies but I’m getting close / Closer to the prize at the end of the rope”. Cue the high-octane, soaring chorus, distortion pedal, and drum thunder. “Done / Done / On to the next one” is the ante that gets upped into a screaming outtro and, consistently enough, the full stop that ends the song.

From there the album segues into the tight drumming and fuzzed-out riffing of “Low”, a song that pleasingly combines menace and crunch, and the almost bouncy “Have It All”, whose chorus features some lovely vocal harmonies. It is in moments like this where the Foo Fighters seem most to be evolving, if that’s the word. The rhythmic shifts and alternatingly smooth and driving vocal styles are still the same, but the harmony feels like something new, another texture perhaps, or perhaps just a more complex one. The lead guitar tone in this song is also almost clean, making it a kind of arcing counterpoint to the soft-sliding chorus. “Times Like These” is the next single, featuring some arpeggio guitar and a jangly intro leading into the standard-issue Foo crunch. Once again, the chorus is smoother, the melody mellower, less urgent, than other Foo sing-alongs like “Everlong”.

In this regard the biggest departure is probably the spooky, almost psychedelic “Disenchanted Lullaby”. More jangly guitar and complex vocal harmonies, intercut with full on, growling sludge, but even if this sounds like the usual stop-and-start, hard-and-soft formula, the quieter bits are cleaner and simpler, and the loud bits are really relentless. “Tired of You” is similarly minimal, starting with nothing but a single voice and a single guitar and moving into a feedback and reverb-heavy wash that’s as close to the adjective “soundscape” as this band is likely to ever get.

Which is funny, because this was supposed to be their “heavy” album, their “let’s get back to the rock” album, right? Grohl himself admitted in an interview that although the album was originally written to be edgier and uglier, they kept ending up with stuff that sounded kind of gorgeous and smooth, like all those vocal harmonies. What’s too bad is that the combination is so close to their signature that an undiscerning ear isn’t really going to hear it as much of a departure.

Which I’m sure won’t be much of a problem for the Foo Fighters per se. More than any other band of their generation (consider, for example, Pearl Jam), the Foo Fighters are guaranteed heavy MTV rotation plus actual record sales plus decent critical reception. What surprises me, given this kind of license, is that Grohl et al. don’t do more with it. I guess you can give them credit for just playing it straight, but that doesn’t make for good copy.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Foo Fighters second album, The Color and the Shape, an album that some called overproduced at the time. It’s certainly their slickest effort, and their most typical. Paul Schaeffer still plays the opening bars of “Everlong” when he wants to rev up the audience on The Late Show, which I think sort of encapsulates the infectious likeability of the Foo Fighters at their best. But back then, I remember thinking that the Foo Fighters were perfect escape artists, seamlessly imitating themselves with such virtuosity that it sounded like brilliance. Now that the three-dimensional Color and the Shape has given way to the binary One By One, it turns out that after all the Foo Fighters aren’t anything but themselves. Which isn’t the worst thing, but isn’t really much of anything else.

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