Cobain’s ghost: Grohl returns to grunge glory

Diehard Foo Fighters fans are perpetually fighting the “foo” of music critics who can’t break free from the eternal, blissful enrapture of Nirvana. After seven years, four albums, three fellow Foomen, and one new mustache, can’t Dave Grohl be judged on his own terms? In this critic’s opinion, the answer, reaffirmed with every new Foo Fighters release, is a resounding no.ÊFans’ fantasies aside, the Foo Fighters have never actually added anything to Nirvana’s sound — they have merely subtracted and multiplied. Start with a Nirvana track, take away Kurt Cobain (his angst, his voice, his blues-punk genius), speed the beat, and reveal a Foo Fighters song.

What the Foo fans refuse to realize is that this formula should be celebrated, not shunned.ÊGrohl’s willing embrace of his Nirvana days is the element that elevates Foo Fighters far above the post-grunge pretenders.ÊTheir latest album, One by One, is a strong contribution to the grunge tradition, marked by excellent musicianship, spirited beats, and luminous polish. Throughout One, the Foo Fighters maintain a remarkable consistency of quality and clarity of purpose.ÊThe result is a fast-moving stream of fresh, catchy, enjoyable rock music.

Ever since their ’95 self-title debut, the Foo clan’s strength has come from a solid union of skill, energy, and cohesion. The Foo Fighters have worked hard to distill their sound, yielding more potency and coherence with each successive attempt.ÊSlick and tight production by Jim Scott and Bob Ludwig highlights how far they have come.

But the flip side of maturity is sterility.ÊThe Foos lose spontaneity by smoothing out the indie fuzz and garage-punk spikiness of their first two albums. One has no hits on par with “This is a Call” or “Monkeywrench.”ÊStill, some tracks stand out: “Halo” is golden rock; “Lonely as You” sways and swings; “Come Back” shifts moods with subtlety and includes a captivating acoustic intermezzo.ÊMost importantly, the disc as a whole is varied and filler-free.

It’s hard to criticize a frontman as decent and earnest as Grohl. He’s a strong leader, a clever lyricist, and a phenomenal drummer — arguably one of the ’90s best.ÊUnfortunately, his voice lacks the subtlety, power, and passion of (to pick a completely arbitrary example) a Kurt Cobain. By alternating between a raw rasp and a measured scream, Grohl rarely moves the listener to feel emotion, to reflect, or even to sing along uncontrollably.ÊOne could never be an Oscar-caliber soundtrack, or that album you instinctively turn to after a breakup, or the accompaniment for a good night’s walk. But it’s great music for driving, exercising, operating domestic machinery, or vegging out while watching television with the closed captioning on.

The Foo Fighters are an overt throwback to the early ’90s, caught in a wrinkle in the flannel fabric of grunge-time. But then again, all contemporary rock seems to throwback to some era, and grunge isn’t a bad one to choose.ÊAnd if Grohl can never transcend Nirvana — well, who could even approach Nirvana now? Who has? No one since The Enlightened One.

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