The Listening Post: November 2015

Revisiting some old friends.

  • Sonic HighwaysFoo Fighters. Let’s face it, it’s pretty much impossible not to like Dave Grohl. He’s so unconcerned with being cool, he approaches his music with a huge smile and boyish enthusiasm, as if even now he can’t believe that this is how he lives his life, and he has always come across as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s nicest characters. He’s a good singer, a solid if unspectacular guitarist, and a drummer the likes of whom we haven’t seen since John Bonham sat behind the kit for Led Zeppelin. Also, he’s a punk rock kid who’s got Paul McCartney on his phone contact list. So it’s resolved: Dave Grohl is awesome. Then there’s his band. Foo Fighters have always been a band with plenty of chops. As amazing a drummer as Grohl is, his equal (and in some ways superior) is Taylor Hawkins. Guitarist Chris Shifflett is a top-notch lead guitar player, and bassist Nate Mendel provides a great bottom end. However, there’s little in Foo Fighters that can be called original or even particularly interesting. Many of their songs are solid, and their highlights (of which there are many) are among the best examples of rock music in the post-alternative era. But this all makes Sonic Highways that much more disappointing. The album is the “soundtrack” to an eight part documentary that Grohl did for HBO last year. The Foos traveled across the country and hit the biggest of the nation’s musical meccas to explore the evolution of the sound from each of those cities. They talked about blues, power pop, and punk in Chicago, Dixieland jazz in New Orleans, alternative rock in Seattle, etc. In each city, Grohl conducted interviews with musicians and producers, and then wrote the lyrics for these songs based on those interviews. It’s a great concept, but a failed execution. Grohl hit each of these cities like the fan that he is, but didn’t absorb any of the atmosphere. The music on Sonic Highways sounds like every other Foo Fighters album, despite the presence of guest stars like Gary Clark Jr., Rick Nielsen, and Joe Walsh. Of all the guests, only Walsh really makes his presence felt, dropping into “Outside” an elegant, atmospheric guitar solo that could have been lifted straight from James Gang Rides Again. Otherwise, the guests, even the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, get sucked into the band’s sound.

    Which wouldn’t be so bad if the sound was good. But on Sonic Highways Grohl has fully embraced his Enormodome tendencies. There isn’t a single song on the album that doesn’t seem like it was written specifically to be played in front of 80,000 punters at Wembley Stadium. The music is completely faceless, generic arena rock, barely distinguishable from Journey or Nickelback. Grohl still has a lot of punk rock kid in him, which makes this exercise in corporate rock somewhat baffling. This is music that sounds like it was dreamed up by men in suits sitting around a table. It’s almost cynical. Listen to “I Am A River” with your eyes closed and just try not to picture 80,000 lit cell phones being waved in the air at a football stadium. I don’t think it can be done. Notice how what was once passion (The Colour and the Shape‘s “Monkey Wrench”) has now become a cliché: the music is rising to a crescendo, time to start screaming the lyrics as if they actually mean something. For all the volume, speed, screaming, and thrash in these grooves the result is completely soulless. Grohl is the ultimate rock music fanboy, and Sonic Highways is a love letter to the cities that generated the music he loves, but it’s a love letter devoid of genuine emotion, as if it was written by a child painstakingly copying the love letters he found in his Dad’s dresser drawer, but not really knowing what the words mean. The songs from Sonic Highways will probably sound great in the Enormodome, but in the car or streaming through Spotify they sound banal and dull, and the band that has been flying the True Believer flag for rock music for twenty years now suddenly sound like the reason Nirvana had to exist.
    Grade: D
  • Crosseyed HeartKeith Richards. It’s been 23 years since the soul of the Rolling Stones has stepped out of his band’s shadow and released a solo album. In 1988 and 1992 Keith Richards proved that he could survive, and even thrive, without his musical brother Mick Jagger. Talk Is Cheap and Main Offender were loose, sloppy affairs that called up everything that was great about the Stones. More than two decades later, and ten years after the last Rolling Stones album, Keith’s done it again. Crosseyed Heart has an advantage over Keith’s previous solo efforts: he’s no longer stuck in a high-gloss production era. Now the drums sound more like drums and less like rifle shots, and the rough edges are allowed to show. It’s a better sound than the earlier albums, and a worthy successor in terms of song quality. What the album is missing is Mick Jagger’s vocals. Keith has always been a bit lacking in the vocal department; his best vocals are a soulful, excited bray, and add texture and color to the Stones. Who doesn’t love a good Keith track like “Happy” or “Before They Make Me Run”? But there’s a difference between being the spotlight kid on one or two songs and carrying an entire album. As studied and forced as Jagger’s vocals have become in the last twenty years, they’re still a far sight better than Keith’s. There’s also little doubt that Keith’s vocals have been helped by modern technology. Anyone who’s heard Keith speak, his voice a harsh, phlegm-filled rasp, would know that the singing here has been sweetened. It’s still rough, but he doesn’t sound like a man with encroaching emphysema. Musically, Crosseyed Heart is a winner. Keith has always been an advocate of the roll in rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s plenty of groove to be found here. “Heartstopper” and “Trouble” are terrific Stones-y rockers, “Love Overdue” is Richards’s best reggae track since It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s “Luxury”, “Blues In The Morning” resurrects the spirit of Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson, “Suspicious” is one of the best examples of Keith’s recent penchant for torch song balladeering. There’s also a terrific cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” that connects Keith to his influences in a way that hasn’t been heard since the days when the Stones were covering Robert Johnson. Maybe best of all is “Substantial Damage”, a great funk groove underpinning Keith’s speak-sing lyrics (“What’s that thing attached to your ear?/I’m talking to you but you don’t seem to hear/I’m paying for dinner and I might as well not be here” could have been lifted from a Jack White song.) There are some quibbles: the title track is fantastic, a finger-picked acoustic blues that sounds like Robert Johnson was reincarnated, but ends abruptly with Keith declaring “That’s all I got.” He should have taken some time to finish the song. “Illusion” sounds like a rewrite of Talk Is Cheap‘s vastly superior “Make No Mistake” with Norah Jones filling in for Sarah Dash. “Robbed Blind” is a not terribly interesting country ballad, though the pedal steel is lovely. Still, the album proves that there is songwriting and performing life still in Keith Richards. If he can steer Mick Jagger away from his desire to be “contemporary” and get him back to his roots, another Stones album could prove to be a real winner.
    Grade: B+
  • Dodge And BurnThe Dead Weather. Much like with The Raconteurs it seems a little unfair to call The Dead Weather “a Jack White side project”. It is that, but it’s surely just as much, if not more, of an Alison Mosshart side project. The singer for The Kills is the heart and soul of The Dead Weather. While the most famous musician in the band is sitting in the back, playing astonishingly good drums and taking the odd vocal turn, Mosshart is the strutting tiger that gives the band their strength. Dodge and Burn, recorded in fits and starts over the past couple of years, is the band’s best album yet. It maintains the Weather’s industrial Gothic blues sound, but is more easily accessible and more varied. “Three Dollar Hat” hints at rap, and “Lose The Right” has a reggae vibe, but both songs sound like the soundtrack to the end of the world. Throughout the album all the Dead Weather hallmarks are prominent: distorted, fuzzed bass and guitar, heavy keyboards, strangled vocals, and pounding drums. But unlike their earlier efforts, Horehound and Sea of Cowards, the sound doesn’t overwhelm the songs. These are the sturdiest songs the band has done. The best tunes on this album (“I Feel Love”, “Buzzkiller”, “Open Up”, “Cop and Go”) are as good or better than anything they’ve ever done, and even the lesser tracks (“Three Dollar Hat”, “Be Still”) are pretty solid. The album closer, “Impossible Winner” is a string-laden ballad that sounds like nothing else in their canon and proves that Mosshart can actually sing. The Dead Weather can be a tough listen; it’s rare that I revisit the first two albums. But it’s a band with talent and attitude to spare and on Dodge and Burn they sound for the first time like more than the sum of their parts.
    Grade: B+
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“One more trip and I’ll be gone…” Scott Weiland, RIP

It’s something of a tasteless remark, but not untrue, that the biggest surprise in Scott Weiland’s death was how late in his life it happened. The singer of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver has spent more than twenty years fighting his demons, including his diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, in the public eye. The cycle was always the same: Weiland’s on drugs, goes to rehab, goes back on drugs, gets arrested, goes to rehab, puts out new music, goes back on drugs, gets kicked out of his own band, goes to rehab. Repeat as unnecessary. His addiction to drugs, most notably heroin, came to be the defining aspect of his life just as it will likely be revealed to be the defining aspect of his death.

And that’s a shame. Scott Weiland was also a remarkably good rock singer, capable of a sweet croon, a sultry Morrison-esque baritone, and a raging rasp. He had a finely tuned sense of melody, far superior to Kurt Cobain (who usually gets the credit for putting melody into alternative rock). Stone Temple Pilots’s songs could be crushing hard rock, but they were almost always very catchy. His idols were David Bowie and the Beatles, and he displayed the former’s chameleonic, mercurial showmanship with the sturdy melodic lines of the latter, all set to an alt-rock attack that carried more than a few hints of glam and psychedelia.

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When STP released their first album, Core, they were dismissed by critics as Pearl Jam clones, and there was more than a hint of Eddie Vedder’s “Jeremy” mannerisms in STP’s “Plush” video, but the comparison of the two bands was always lazy. Aside from both Weiland and Vedder having deeper voices than was common in rock at the time, and aside from them being guitar-based bands, there was very little overlap between them. Pearl Jam worshiped at the shrine of Pete Townshend and the Who; STP sped up Bowie and combined it with Black Sabbath-style riffing. Core was a huge hit, spawning no fewer than four successful singles (“Sex Type Thing”, “Plush”, “Wicked Garden”, and “Creep”) but the dirty secret of such a successful album was that it really wasn’t very good. Yes, the singles were excellent, and the album tracks “Dead and Bloated” and “Crackerman” were equally good, but the rest of the album was mediocre at best. I bought it on the strength of “Plush”, but didn’t anticipate ever buying another album from them.

Then Purple came out, heralded by the song “Big Empty” from the soundtrack of the movie The Crow. I bought Purple based on hearing “Interstate Love Song”, the best song the band ever did and one of the best songs of the entire decade. The album was almost breathtakingly heavy, its relentless pace softened only by “Pretty Penny”, “Big Empty” and the closing “Kitchenware and Candybars”, but it never seemed that way because of Weiland’s melodic gifts.

Other albums followed, and the band explored their roots, mixing heavy and trippy, pummeling riffs and acoustic ballads. It’s somewhat ironic that their first, best-selling album is also their worst, the sound of a young band finding their way.

The guiding light of the band was always Scott Weiland, but his troubles were so deep he was repeatedly fired from the band he led, only to be brought back when his bandmates recognized how important he was to their success. In the downtimes, he released solo albums that suffered from a lack of constraints on his excesses, and teamed up with former Guns ‘n’ Roses players to form the short-lived Velvet Revolver, who eventually fired him for being so unreliable. Despite his problems, his gifts remained undiminished.

Whether Weiland died from a drug overdose or because his body simply gave out after years of abuse is irrelevant. A gifted singer and melodist, a strong songwriter (with admittedly weak lyrics), and an electrifying performer is now gone at the age of 48. His band was possibly the best singles band of the 1990s, with their only real competition for that title being Smashing Pumpkins. Scott Weiland wasn’t a musician; he was a rock star. One of the last we’ll ever see. RIP.