June 1st began like any other day of Summer 2017 for me; I was working as a student tech for one of the colleges at Western Michigan University and was appropriately slacking off by chatting with the other techs and attendants. While half-listening to my coworkers, I checked my phone and saw that I had a notification that the Foo Fighters had released a new single: “Run.” I bolted from the room without so much as a “hang on a second.”
You see, Foo Fighters have been my favorite band since sometime in late 2006. I’m not entirely sure what it is about them; most of their career has been spent being a safe, vanilla flavor of alternative rock music that doesn’t exactly bleed originality beyond some distinctly Grohl flavors. However, no other band really connects with me like they do. I know the history of the band in and out. All of the members who’ve ever touched a Foo record, even down to the one guitar track by Greg Dulli on the self-titled album’s “X-Static.” Something about Dave’s songs just resonates with me on a level that no other artist does.
My best friends from middle and high school and I formed a rock band back in 8th grade, and the first song we ever performed (or even played all the way through without messing up) was the Foo Fighters’s “Everlong,” easily one of my favorite songs of all time. In fact, we always played one, if not two, Foo covers at the few shows that we played. One of those friends and I still have what sometimes feels like scheduled deep conversation every few months about Foo Fighters; how their sound has changed, what we miss, what we love, which producers we want to record the next album, you name it. So to put it in fewer words: a surprise single was a big deal for me.
I wish that I could say that I was as excited after listening to it as I was prior; my expectations for the album were tempered by a surprisingly safe single that didn’t elicit much enthusiasm from me. Still, I marked my calendar for September 15, 2017: the release of the new album Concrete and Gold.
I pre-ordered the album as soon as I was able, and listened the first moment that I could, forcing my stream of consciousness upon my Foo-loving friend as I listened. Afterwards, and to this day, we still talk about this album a lot, but not for the reasons Dave Grohl would likely hope; frankly, we were disappointed in it. It sits as my least favorite album from the group. Even still, we each have things that we do enjoy about the album, and while I can’t speak for him, I can at least describe my own thoughts. I’ll try to find at least one highlight from each song that I really enjoy.
The first song, “T-Shirt,” is a short-but-sweet number that has two modes: lullaby and stadium-shaking rock. It starts with just Dave and an acoustic guitar singing how he “don’t wanna be king” and is “just trying to keep his t-shirt clean.” But just when you may reach to turn up the volume during this nearly-too-quiet section (I did, and regretted it), the song shatters its shell and explodes, a wall of guitars and choir advancing outwards in all directions. Dave ominously sets a darker tone, announcing “There’s one thing I have learned//If it gets much better//It’s going to get worse//And you get what you deserve.” I enjoy both halves of the song; Dave’s intimate acoustic numbers always feel delightfully honest, and he sure as hell knows how to write an impactful rock chorus. If anything, this song is too short, but it does an intro’s job. The highlight: The climax after the 1:00 minute mark.
The problem with “Run” is that it’s just so painfully forgettable. What is supposed to be a sing-along, lazy, dreamy intro seems more boring, and the crunchy riff that defines the song is just two repetitive notes that isn’t far from a toddler playing with a toy electric guitar. I do appreciate the guitar work in the chorus, though. While it’s obvious they mostly just follow the VI-v-i chord progression, they walk over enough notes between the bars that it feels fresh. The guitar solo and bridge sections feel frantic and energetic, and are easily the height of the song. The highlight: The chaotic guitar solo section at 4:06.
“Make it Right” is an interesting number; a riffy, bluesy song that features Dave doing a bit less singing and a bit more preaching. The chorus pulls off a clever key change that is a bit jarring at first, but settles in just fine. The real beauty in this song, though, is in the bridge. It features a riff the climbs up the bluesy scale continuously in a very groovy way. In the background is a very un-Foo-like “La” on every beat, sung by none other than Justin Timberlake. While it’s a bluesier section than I’d ever heard from the band, it ended up being my favorite part of the song. Oh, and at the end of the bridge is this tasty drum roll from Taylor Hawkins set under a phaser effect of some sort. It’s trippy, but it’s memorable in all the good ways. The highlight: The groovy signature guitar riff under double-time hi-hats.
Next up is the single that had the most airplay: “The Sky is a Neighborhood.” This song accomplishes exactly what it set out to do: be a sleepy, rhythmic stadium sing-along. It begins with a haunting chorus and string section behind an arpeggiating guitar before that all stops, leaving a hollow and reverb-heavy Dave singing more or less just with a drum beat. If it was supposed to give the impression that it’s just a regular dude singing and not a professional, it works, and it’s charming. This whole song really just is a sing-along number, and it really kicks in once the whole band joins in for the huge choruses. The highlight: The sing-along chorus.
“La Dee Da” has a lot to love, in my opinion. Laden with flavors of groovy and faster, harder rock from their excellent 2011 album Wasting Light, it strums along through the verse before exploding into a scream-heavy chorus. While I’m not a fan of the guitar solo in this song (for as exciting and energetic as the choruses surrounding it are, the solo is just so flat and boring), it’s not enough to kill it, and it’s still a winner. The highlight: The locomotive energy Dave’s screams bring in the chorus.
The real crown jewel of the album is here at the halfway point: “Dirty Water.” It’s unlike anything the Foos have really done much before. Starting with simple finger-plucked acoustic dyads that sound influenced by Spanish classical music, it blossoms into a lazy languor of Dave describing his dreams. The chorus is very choir heavy again, a recurrent element on Concrete and Gold. Halfway through the song, we get the heavy repetitive riff that Dave and the Foos are known for, a simple repeating of E octaves at first that transforms into more from there. Dave repeatedly warns, “Bleed dirty water//Breathe dirty sky,” which is much more effective in practice than it sounds. The way the melody resolves is incredibly satisfying, and Dave adds enough intensity on each repetition to keep you hooked, constantly climbing his vocal range until he’s scratching his grated ceiling. Finally, the song hits its satisfying last chorus, and ends with a taste of the E octave riff again before finally screeching to a halt. The highlight: The whole damned thing.
“Arrows” is an interesting song. A unique drum rhythm gives it a sort of asymmetric rhythm, feeling more like two 3/4 bars followed by a 2/4 and then repeating than two 4/4 bars. The song builds up to a claustrophobic chorus as Dave sings “Arrows in her eyes//Fear where her heart should be.” It hits me with a feeling that I’m frantically searching for something that I’m unable to find, and time is running out. The bridge section does what the opening verses allude to; turning to 3/4 time for a few straightforward rock bars before going back to the asymmetric rhythm (there’s likely a better word for that). This is the highlight of the song for me. The song sheds its distressed vibe and reveals a commanding tank of rock music. The highlight: When the song stops teasing you and gives you a few 3/4 bars of pure rock in the bridge.
This is where the album takes a tonal shift in my mind. The next song, “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour),” wears its Beatles inspiration on its sleeve. One can’t listen to this song without thinking about the ’60s group’s “Blackbird.” Dave laments about drinking whiskey while sending resignation letters, pondering “Where is your Shangri-La now?” as “There ain’t no superheroes now//They’re underground.” All together, it’s a really enjoyable acoustic tune that is a nice blend of that “Blackbird” Beatles sound with the Foos’ relatively recognizable version of alternative rock. The highlight: The beautiful chorus hook.
Speaking of the Beatles, and especially “Blackbird” singer Paul McCartney, drums on the next track, “Sunday Rain” are played by none other than McCartney himself. And that’s not the only thing different about the track; once in awhile the Foo Fighters like to throw a wrench into things and have drummer Taylor Hawkins sing a song (first on In Your Honor’s “Cold Day in the Sun,” and frequently during covers when performing), and this is that song on Concrete and Gold. “Sunday Rain” is a slow burn that is reminiscent of darker Tom Petty tunes to me. The verses are quiet with a simple, unimaginative guitar riff, It’s also the longest song on the album, coming in at just over six minutes long. If anything, the song does overstay its welcome, but Taylor is an enjoyable, smokey singer so it’s a mostly relaxing, sexy jam. The highlight: Taylor Hawkins’s voice is the best thing about this song.
“The Line” is the penultimate song on the album, and is one of the spots where the album’s less-than-stellar (read: bad) production is most evident. The song starts immediately, with low piano and bass notes ringing as Dave sings right out of the gate. However, when the band comes in about 15 seconds in, what I imagine is supposed to feel like a spirited eruption is capped by the ridiculous lack of dynamics this album has. Apart from the first track, there is little difference in volume between the “quiet” and the “loud” sections, which makes moments like this lose a ton of their energy. I think “The Line” is one of the better songs on the album musically, but the lack of energy that it’s supposed to have makes it harder to enjoy. The highlight: The intro, before the band comes in, an experimental sound by Foo Fighters standards.
I wish I could say things about the closing title track, “Concrete and Gold.” It’s clearly supposed to be a tired hangover of a song that unfolds into a huge, dreamy chorus. But I think Dave stuck the landing with the “hangover” part a little too well; his vocals are often too quiet and slurred to understand. He sings, “Our roots are stronger than you know//Up through the concrete we will grow” repeatedly, and maybe the slowness is the point. His lyrics reference the flowers, weeds, grass, and various life that grows through the cracks in asphalt, as if they’re fighting and finally burst through over ages of continuous effort. Sadly, it’s probably the biggest miss on the album, and frankly, it’s boring. The highlight: I enjoy the quiet bridge section; it reminds me of an old cowboy western flick.
The brightest spots on Concrete and Gold happen where Foo Fighters experiment a little without losing sight of who they are. That being things like the jumpy, riffy bridge to “Make it Right” with Justin Timberlake sprinkled in. The scream-heavy choruses to “La Dee Da,” brimming with energy. The mysterious acoustic “Dirty Water” and its patented Foo Fighters repetition-based build up to the final chorus. The melancholic “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)” that wears its Beatles inspiration on its sleeve. There’s still quite a bit to love in this album, just not as much as other Foo Fighters records.