The Listening Post: May 2011

  • Wasting LightFoo Fighters. Dave Grohl’s second best band has just released their best album since 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. Maybe the best album of their career. It’s clear that spending a lot of quality time with Josh Homme has rubbed off on Grohl. The songs on Wasting Light are thick and muscular, like the best work of Queens Of The Stone Age or Them Crooked Vultures, but contain no shortage of the 1970s power pop sensibilities that Grohl brings to the table. For a guy who burst onto the scene with Nirvana, a band that wore its indie punk rock credibility like a badge of honor, Dave Grohl obviously spent an enormous amount of time listening to big 70s stadium rock. He clearly owns more than one Wings album hidden in between the Bad Brains and Black Flag LPs. The negative rap on Foo Fighters has been that they swing wildly between the extremes of stadium ready power pop like “Learn To Fly” and squalling noisefests like “X-Static.” At their best (most of their singles and a whole bunch of album tracks), they combine these elements to create heavy, driving rock music with huge, soaring hooks. That’s the sound of Wasting Light. This may be the Foo’s hardest rocking album, just as it may be their catchiest. Yes, “White Limo” veers off in the “noise” direction thanks to its heavily distorted vocals, but the rest of the songs are a complete validation of Grohl’s omnivorous approach to rock music. “Burning Bridges” rides a pummeling riff with an explosive chorus, “Rope” has a choppy, staccato rhythm for the verses and a chorus that is among the most melodic you’ll ever hear in a hard rock song. “Dear Rosemary” features a great guest vocal from Bob Mould (no stranger to marrying heavy punk with catchy choruses), “Arlandria” may be their best song since “Learn To Fly,” a near-perfect synthesis of heavy and hooky. “These Days” inverts the formula (and brings back the Nirvana formula) and presents a gentle, melodic verse and a crushing chorus. “Back & Forth” deftly blends Queen-ready verses with a Husker Du chorus: arena punk rock. “A Matter Of Time” and “Walk” mine similar territory, running Grohl’s childhood listening experiences through the prism of punk rock. “Miss The Misery” is a bit of a letdown, but not bad, and “I Should Have Known” reunites Grohl with Krist Novoselic in a heartfelt (but still hard rocking) song about Kurt Cobain, where Grohl channels all the anger and sadness that the Nirvana singer’s suicide clearly caused. Wasting Light is the Foo Fighters at their best.
    Grade: A
  • Boscobel BluesThe Greenhornes. Released in a very limited edition on Jack White’s Third Man Records, Boscobel Blues is a brief, 7-track collection of demos recorded by The Greenhornes around the time they released the great EP East Grand Blues. Three of these songs (“Pattern Skies,” “I’m Going Away” and “”Shelter Of Your Arms”) ended up in re-recorded versions on that EP, two others (“I Need Your Love,” “Saying Goodbye”) were remade for their most recent LP, ****, and the remaining two tracks have never been officially released. The difference between the tracks on Boscobel Blues and their official releases is striking. Jack White claims that these demos are his favorite Greenhornes songs and it’s easy to see why. The songs are well-recorded but far from pristine. There’s a real grit and nastiness to these versions that is toned down on the official releases. The guitar solos are more ragged, the performances are loose and raw. The effect is akin to hearing a live album, but recorded in a studio. Of the songs that are available elsewhere, these demos are at least as good as, if not better than, the official releases. Of the two unreleased tracks, the first (“Open Your Eyes”) is the weakest. It’s a good song with a great guitar solo, but maybe a bit too derivative of the Greenhornes’ garage rock influences. The second is a rip-roaring heavy garage version of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” that does for Brown what the Who did for Eddie Cochran when they covered “Summertime Blues” (or, ironically, what the Who did for Brown when they covered “I Don’t Mind” and “Please Please Please” on their first album). Excellent throughout.
    Grade: A+
  • Rated RQueens Of The Stone Age. There are some bands that seem to evoke a geographical location. A band like the Doors or the Red Hot Chili Peppers are pure Los Angeles. There’s a real Southern Gothic feel to early R.E.M. Queens of the Stone Age is a brutally hard rock band that nevertheless evokes (for me, at least) the desert. Listening to Rated R is like hearing the soundtrack of a long drive through the Southwest United States, with the top down on the car, sunglasses on, wind in your hair, and desolation on your mind. There’s nothing in the music, per se, that leads to this thought, though band leader Josh Homme is from Arizona. There’s just something about the sound. The opening riff fest “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” sets the table brilliantly. The lyrics of the verses are a simple repetition of “Nicotine/Valium/Vicodin/Marijuana/Ecstasy and alcohol” while the chorus is a stuttered “Cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cocaine” and there’s a hilariously over-the-top guitar solo. The first half of the album bounces from strength to strength. There’s the extraordinary and catchy “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” that sounds like a great lost Foo Fighters track (it’s abundantly clear why Homme and Dave Grohl united for various Queens songs and the Them Crooked Vultures project…they’re cut from the same musical cloth). “Leg Of Lamb” carries a distorted syncopation and sounds like a heavy Beck track. “Auto-Pilot” is a gently rolling song punctuated with stabs of electric guitar that creates an enormous amount of tension that breaks into a brief acoustic and harmony vocal bridge. After four excellent songs comes “Better Living Through Chemistry,” which indulges the dirge/stoner rock Josh Homme can lapse into. It’s not terrible, but it’s too long and it lays there like the bleached bones of an animal in that desert sun. Fortunately the album picks up again with “Monsters In The Parasol,” but the rest of the album is a bit of a dodgier vibe. “Monsters,” and “In The Fade” are the only songs in the second half that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those first few songs, though “Tension Head” comes close and “Lightning Song” is a very good acoustic instrumental. Other than that, “Quick And To The Pointless” is aptly named and “I Think I Lost My Headache” starts as a another dirge and ends with nearly three minutes of tuneless horns…a sad ending to an otherwise good album.
    Grade: B+
  • Wild GiftX. If Rated R was top-heavy, X’s sophomore album Wild Gift is bottom heavy. Most of the elements that made their first album Los Angeles so remarkable are back, notably the vocal attack of John Doe and Exene Cervenka and the rockabilly/punk Chuck Berry-isms of guitarist Billy Zoom. But there’s simply no way that Wild Gift can be considered on the same level as Los Angeles. The former is one of the greatest punk albums of all time and one of the great rock albums of the 1980s. The songs on Wild Gift are simply not as consistently great. Although considered by many to be a classic X song, “Adult Books” does absolutely nothing for me, “Universal Corner” and “I’m Coming Over” are performances in search of a song. These three songs, none of which are bad, per se, arrive as tracks 3-5 of the album. Surrounding these songs is greatness. The 1-2 punch of “The Once Over Twice” and “We’re Desperate” that starts the album is surpassed only by the eight songs that end the album. The buzzsaw guitar of “It’s Who You Know,” the vaguely Mariachi Chuck Berry sound of the guitar fills “In This House That I Call Home,” and the ferocious blending of Doe’s and Cervenka’s voices on “When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch” are standouts. It’s not as good as their first album. Few albums are. But despite a lackluster interlude near the beginning, Wild Gift is a stellar sophomore effort.
    Grade: A-

Horehound, by The Dead Weather

m61363pa3g8Move over, James Brown. The hardest working man in show biz is Jack White. Since the White Stripes first burst into public consciousness with their third album, the brilliant White Blood Cells, guitarist and singer Jack White has been omnipresent. He has released three albums with the White Stripes, two albums with The Raconteurs, produced an album for Loretta Lynn, toured extensively, released a live Stripes DVD, jammed with the Stones, Pete Townshend, and Bob Dylan, finished working on the forthcoming guitar geek documentary It Might Get Loud, prepped a new White Stripes documentary due out this fall, opened a record store/record label/rehearsal space/recording studio in Nashville, got married and had a child, and has formed his third band, The Dead Weather. I get tired just thinking about it. The kicker is this: he’s been great at everything he’s done. Jack White is having a stretch of several years that most musicians only dream about: whatever he touches turns to gold. He simply can’t do anything wrong at this point. I’m sure that he will stumble at some point; everybody does. But right now, he’s got a really hot hand and he’s smart enough to take advantage of it.

Horehound is the first album by The Dead Weather, and White takes a back seat (literally) on this project. Unlike his other bands, White is not the focus of attention here. He’s not even the guitarist: for this project he returns to his first instrument, the drums. Surprise, surprise: yes, he’s even a very good drummer. He’s also not the lead singer. While White sings lead on one cut, the vocals are handled by the smoldering Alison Mosshart of The Kills, who sings in a voice amazingly similar to…Jack White’s. The bass duties are picked up by Jack Lawrence of The Greenhornes and The Raconteurs, and the guitar and keyboards are Dean Fertita of Queens Of The Stone Age.

Jack White has always come across as the decent, respectable boy of rock and roll. He’s finding it harder to be a gentleman, but he’s trying. He wants to be the boy to warm your mother’s heart. He wants to settle down and get married by a priest. He thinks that we are gonna be friends. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, apparently. He does have a dark side, of course. Jack’s greatest sin is his power of manipulation, evidenced on Stripes songs like “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket.”

On Horehound, Jack White loses his innocence to a maneater named Mossheart. The sonic difference between The Dead Weather and his other bands is immediately apparent. The White Stripes sound like blues lovers on a Zeppelin binge. The Raconteurs are a country-inflected classic rock band. The Dead Weather? A cross between Nine Inch Nails, the Cure, and Lucifer.

The star of The Dead Weather is Alison Mossheart. She is the strutting, ravenous alpha-female. One can almost see the discarded bones of her previous lovers as she struts past. If you look in her eyes you’re turned to stone, as if she were a beautiful Gorgon. Rolling drums, plucked guitar strings, synthesized sounds start “60 Feet Tall,” as Mossheart croons “You’re so cruel and shameless/But I can’t leave you be…You’ve got the kind of loving/I need constantly.” She-Devil Mossheart has her eyes set on someone who isn’t good for her. It’s okay, though, because she can take the trouble. Mossheart is the flip of Jack White. If White is the nice guy with a naughty, manipulative streak, Mossheart is the girl who is attracted to the bad, but is herself bad enough to leave nothing but scorched earth in her wake. She feeds on the bad…and she’s got the manipulator Jack in her sights. Ferocious guitars and the raunchiest, filthiest bass I’ve ever heard slam in and out of the song while White plays Mitch Mitchell-style rolls.

Mossheart lets White know early that his manipulation won’t work on her. “You say that I love you/But it ain’t true…I’d like to grab you by the hair/And drag you to the Devil,” Mossheart spits on the brilliant “Hang You From The Heavens” as the thick, intense music swirls up and down around her. On his sole lead vocal, White protests that he may look like he can be easily defeated, but he’s really made of much tougher stuff. “I may look like a woman/But I cut like a buffalo,” he sings on “I Cut Like A Buffalo” as the instruments create a wall of frequently discordant noise behind him.

Jack’s claim of toughness isn’t having any sway on Mossheart. She counters Jack’s claim by informing him that he’s unable of manipulating her and helpless before her. She’s got him pinned, and he just wants to get up. “I said no,” Mossheart sings in a tired voice on “So Far From Your Weapon,” as if she’s already tiring of the game.

The peak of this extraordinary album is “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” which could act as a soundtrack for the Götterdämmerung. White’s manipulative ways are crushed by Mossheart. White and Mossheart trade vocals, but it’s Mossheart’s show. “Stand up like a man!/You better learn to shake hands/And treat me like your mother,” Mossheart scolds. White responds, as if it’s his brain trying to convince him what to do: “Play dumb/Play dead/Try to manipulate…” But he’s never met anyone quite like Mossheart, who spits his own words back at him, going so far as to spell out for him “M-A-N-I-P-You late!” It’s all too late, for Jack. He’s crossed over.

By the next song, “Rocking Horse” the nice boy is writing letters to God:

I drank some dirty water
Shook evil hands
I’ve done some bad things
And they get easier to do

Then I wrote a nasty letter
And I sent it to the Lord
I said don’t you dare come
And bother me no more

Mossheart joins him on the vocals, strengthening the theme, joining him at his evil hip.

A cover of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony” serves to reinforce the basic theme. While the lead vocals are all Mossheart, the lyrics reflect the same back and forth between the two principles. Over a brutal heavy metal industrial backing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ministry song, Mossheart first sings about owning a lame pony named Lucifer who needs shooting. In the second verse, she takes on White’s role, wondering what’s going on in the mind of Miss X. In the third verse she again is scolding White. His “nasty letter to the Lord” from “Rocking Horse” is going to be turned against him: “That god you been praying to/Is gonna give ya back what you’re wishin’ on someone else.” She ends the song with the blatantly sexual imagery of climbing up on the pony, who is bad and nasty, but she loves him anyway.

On “Bone House,” Mossheart lets Jack know that she’s the one who is in the position of power for now, for ever. An industrial blues song, with judicious synthesized guitar licks and clanging cymbals, “Bone House” finds Mossheart breaking the news to Jack that she always gets what she wants, and she does it by putting his heart in a vault. “I’ll build a house for your bones,” she informs him.

The instrumental “3 Birds” follows, and sounds like a soundtrack from some lost movie. Lawrence’s bass drives the song with keyboards, drums, and guitar noises providing color. It took me a while to like it, but I do. At around the 1:40 mark, when the synthesizer and the psychedelic Sergio Leone acoustic guitar come in and take over the song, I was sold.

On the penultimate track, “No Hassle Night” Mossheart once again provides the voice for both herself and Jack. The relationship, one of anger, manipulation, and, presumably, unbelievably great sex, is all but over. Both Mossheart and White are wasted, done. “I’m looking for a place to go/Where I can lay low/Die slow,” Mossheart sings. Her voice is tired, the musical accompaniment thick and slow. “I’ve become her and it hurts my mind.” At this point, the lovers are exhausted and all they want is a night without any problems.

“Will There Be Enough Water?” ends the album. The thick, industrial sound of the album is gone, with just a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, delicate piano, and light drums providing a bluesy backdrop as Mossheart and, predominantly, White meet their reckoning. “Will there be enough water/When my ship comes in?” they wonder. “When I set sail/Will there be enough wind?” One can’t help but think the answer is no. These lovers are doomed.

This final track is, unfortunately, the sole bum song on the disc. It’s not a bad three minute song. The problem is that it’s over six minutes long, and never really goes anywhere. But as for the rest of the album…simply brilliant. Grade: A