- Wasting Light—Foo 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.
- Boscobel Blues—The 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.
- Rated R—Queens 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.
- Wild Gift—X. 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.
A little late, and all those Christmas carols cut into my listening time.
- Long Live The Duke & The King—The Duke & The King. The thing that stands out the most about this album is that is sounds simply beautiful. It’s recorded, mixed, and mastered perfectly, giving the album the warm intimacy of a small live show. The plaintive lead vocals and gorgeous harmonies sound like they could be coming from right in front of you. Great production will only get you so far, and Long Live The Duke & The King has no shortage of quality songs. These songs are a study in contrasts. The music is pure summertime, all warmth. The lyrics, however, are often dark. “Shaky” tells a harrowing tale of drugs and post-traumatic stress and sets it to music that would sound great coming out of a convertible on a warm summer day. Another standout, “Hudson River” is marked by the plea “don’t you take your love away.” Simi Stone sings “No Easy Way Out” which swings with a sunshine-y groove while the lyrics are about despair and loss. The band is named after the con artists in Huckleberry Finn, and the sound matches that image: pastoral, lazy days, and sunshine mixed with danger, loneliness, and a sense of dread. Despite a stellar beginning, the end of the album collapses under the weight of its own pretenses. “You and I” has some of the silliest lyrics since Edie Brickell told us the definition of religion and philosophy, and features a leaden chorus that sits like a bag of rocks in the middle of the song. “Children Of The Sun” strives for some deep message, but never connects. Worst of all is the closing track “Don’t Take That” which appears to be about warning someone not to get on a plane. It’s nearly seven minutes of awful, and the biggest strength of the band (those great harmony vocals) fails miserably…the backing vocals are awkward, tuneless, and out of place. It’s a genuinely depressing end to the album and should have been left on the cutting room floor. With the exception of “Don’t Take That,” even the songs that are undermined by their lyrics still sound beautiful on a casual listening. But in the end it’s the impression that lyricist Simone Felice feels he has something important to say that holds the album back from being a stone cold soul-funk-folk classic.
- ****—The Greenhornes. On the other hand, The Greenhornes are back with a vengeance. Jack White’s favorite rhythm section and guitarist Craig Fox are back with their first new album in eight years, and they’ve barely skipped a beat. The vibe of **** is a little heavier on old soul music than it is on garage rock, but it still works like a charm. Craig Fox is a fine guitarist and excellent singer, and bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler are Jack White’s favorites for a very good reason: they snap into a pocket like nobody since Duck Dunn and Al Jackson. The Greenhornes are completely enamored with 1960s era rock, but the suit fits. Unlike other 60s rock revivalists like The Grip Weeds, that 60s vibe seems completely natural coming from the Greenhornes. “Jacob’s Ladder” begins like Cream’s “White Room” before turning into the best Face To Face-era song the Kinks never did, and yet it doesn’t sound like they are imitating either Cream or The Kinks. The Greenhornes succeed as garage rock revivalists precisely because their influences are not worn on their sleeves; their influences are hardwired into their DNA. They sweat this stuff out, and in the process it ceases to be the work of 60s garage rock fanboys. It becomes something as real and vital as the best work of the bands that inspired them.