Marching to the beat of a not-so-dumb drummer

The Foo Fighters' "The Colour and the Shape" proves ex-Nirvana member Dave Grohl is still the most powerful drummer in rock 'n' roll.


Sarah Vowell
May 30, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

when rock stars, sick of interviews and flashing cameras, complain that much
of the press surrounding their efforts fails "to talk about the music," they
miss pop culture's point. Namely, that it is a culture, a spacious one,
fueled by songs and albums and their artistic content, but revolving around a
world of spinoff effects: the erotic and/or political desires inspired by
heroes, the identification with musicians as enemies or friends, the rock
concert as social gathering, etc. And there's the draw of (or repulsion
from) the look of a performer, a combination of physical appearance,
fashion, confidence (or lack thereof) and movement that, just as much as the
sound, can turn some artists into idols.

That said, what on earth has Dave Grohl done to his face? Have you seen his
publicity photos? The slovenly mustache in the shape of ice tongs? The
misshapen goatee dotted with a tuft of fur below the lip? His hair's been
cut, which I can live with. Still, is he doing some kind of penance for his
recent divorce? Does he wish to make himself so unattractive in order to
stave off future suitors? And does he feel so guilty for all the bazillions
of records he's helped to sell that he wants to stunt the Foo Fighters' new
release by looking really, really dumb? Because I saw his picture before I
heard "The Colour and the Shape," and I'll admit to being shallow enough
to take one look at that ill-conceived stubble and think, this record is
going to suck.

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Luckily, in the Neil Young play-a-great-song-in-a-stupid-hat tradition, it
doesn't. But to someone who's tracked the Foo Fighters' path since their
debut two years ago, the sounds and songs here are just as jarring a
development as Grohl's whiskers. They're the same development, actually;
cute boy making sunny songs with spacey lyrics has given way to this new
Billy Goat Gruff. Fortunately for listeners, the audio rough patches are
infinitely more desirable than the facial ones. The first album, "Foo
Fighters," was a delight -- optimistic, poppy, full of wonder. It was a
declaration of talent, showcasing Grohl's skills as both a songwriter and a
performer. Composing all the music, playing all the instruments, he broke
out of the Dumb Drummer, Ringo "Heh heh, yeah" Starr stereotype and made a
new name for himself as a punk prodigy. What was remarkable about those
first songs, coming out as they did the year after Kurt Cobain's death, was
the way Grohl managed to appear almost obstinately innocent, playing around
with phrases as odd and angstless as "Fingernails are pretty/Fingernails are
good." Still a newlywed, he wrote love songs like "Big Me" with sweet
declarations about how "it's you I fell into."

"Fall in/Fall out," Grohl drones on the new song "Monkey Wrench," implying
that one action is as easy as the other. Playing pathologist to his own
failed marriage, he even says of innocence earlier in the song that "it
disappeared." If the first album was a dream, this one's real life. "Foo
Fighters'" noise-as-fun has turned into noise-as-pain. And nonsense poems
about floating thingys and cows have been replaced with direct descriptions
of a flopped romantic contract, starting with the stirrings of matrimonial
doubt on the first song, "Doll," on through the post-breakup closure of "New
Way Home," where an inspirational crescendo builds slowly out of an almost
inaudible whisper into the self-reliant scream of "I'm not scared," which ends
it.

If the thematic program of "can't commit" seems straightforward enough, it's
the sound that's gotten more complex. This is due in part to a bigger
emotional range in Grohl's voice, the way he darts from the airy, evocative
"Up In Arms" to the metalhead yells of "Enough Space" (as in, "there never
seems to be ENOUGH SPACE!!!!"). But also, Grohl even plays nice with his
bandmates, relinquishing control of the recording process enough to let
guitarist Pat Smear and bassist Nate Mendel actually work their own
instruments. Fortunately, now ex-drummer William Goldsmith only contributes
to two tracks, because there's still no more powerful drummer in rock 'n' roll
than Grohl.

It isn't just the legacy of Nirvana that hangs over Grohl's music today, but
specifically, his reputation as a drummer. His songs are lovely, his voice
unique, his guitar skills good enough, but none of those things can match up
to the sheer will with which he hits stuff. In fact, my favorite Grohl
moment has nothing to do with Nirvana or even Foo Fighters. Who could forget
his "Saturday Night Live" performance as a fill-in drummer for Tom Petty a
couple of years back? Petty was doing his laconic, effortless thing where
occasionally, if he was really excited, he might move his chin an inch or
something. But every so often the camera would pan back to the writhing
thing behind the drums, framing a blurry picture of freedom. The
entire event wasn't so much network TV as a nature documentary in which a
strange, hilarious octopus thrashes into the path of a pristine, cool fish.

I don't know if Grohl will ever write a song as good as the way he played the drums
that night. I don't know that he has to. Maybe it was always the fact that
he had his own ideas in his head that made his arms bust out of other
writers' songs as a drummer. As a document of personal growth, and as a more
passionate listen than its predecessor, "The Colour and the Shape"
hints at more intense work to come.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

MORE FROM Sarah Vowell

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