Sharps & Flats

Forget Nirvana, unrepentant Foo Fighter Dave Grohl settles down for mediocrity.


Andy Battaglia
November 4, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

There's something resolutely strange but satisfying in hearing Dave Grohl turn into Jackson Browne. As the drummer of Nirvana, Grohl once found himself at the epicenter of what turned out to be a doozy of a youthquake. There he stood, one of the three punk rock faithful ultimately shaken down by a conflicted fascination with the tectonic maneuvering beneath their feet. In pictures of the band, though, Grohl never seemed overly torn. He was always the one who looked at least somewhat happy just to be there. And in the end, he was the only one of the three to escape with music eager to reconcile the cultural terms Nirvana helped redefine.

Save for a few raucous numbers on the Foo Fighters' "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," Grohl has grown out of his punk past and moved closer to the realm of the singer-songwriter. Armed now with a guitar and lead vocal duties, he's staking claim to a more casual presence. Though the dated sound that marks Nirvana's rock residency today speaks more to the almost terrifying rapidity of pop culture's powers of assimilation than to the band's original noise, it certainly has been aided by the band's sudden and tragic disappearance.

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For his part, though, Grohl is still around, carving out a space on his third post-Nirvana record as a musician who will always be there, making pretty good music and not much more. It's easy to look ahead a number of years and imagine Grohl as a music guy, like Browne, marked by a moppish brown top, a catalog of very adequate songs and a presence most notable for its unending persistence.

Grohl screams a fair amount on "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," but as a whole the record traces a tempered kind of catharsis. When they arrive, his screams are many-timbred, colored by subtle shades of emotion and his always-working sense of melody. And to measured effect, they always follow the lead of his guitar and his bandmates (which, ever-shifting and now absent of ex-Germ Pat Smear, seem almost incidental; nevertheless, they are bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins).

The album's opener, "Stacked Actors," is more or less an exercise in punk dynamics, tender-footed in its glockenspiel-tinged build-up and forcefully lumbering in its chorus. "Breakout" is decidedly pop-punk, but in the more nimble fashion of Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson in the late-'70s rather than that of current acts who have adopted the term.

The two opening tracks taken together set the stage for "Learn to Fly," the record's first single and de facto focal point for its lyric, "Hook me up a new revolution/Because this one is a lie/Sat around laughing/And watched the last one die." In the song, Grohl truly opens up, revealing his vast melodic and structural range in a would-be poolside radio hit so likable it escapes the punishable ubiquity of the theme announced by its title.

Throughout most of the rest of the record, the Foo Fighters spend time exploring the range unveiled on "Learn to Fly." Whether summoning Peter Frampton with the talking-guitar intro of "Generator," channeling Radiohead's distant heart-wrangling on "Aurora" or flirting with Byrds redux by way of the near-country phrasing and chiming guitars of "Ain't It the Life," they deliver a sound that has its touchstones but stands delivered by a sensibility somehow very much of its time.

Seemingly at odds, these two qualities overlap to spawn an almost anonymous rock style that's easy to pick apart but remains indistinguishable as a whole. Such slipperiness works to serve the content of the songs themselves, and also to grease Grohl's refusal to be cast as just an ex-Nirvana punk given to any one certain sound. Instead, his musical past serves as a bittersweet reminder, like that exhibited by a limping war veteran all the more proud for his cane. And aging ever so gracefully.

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Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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