Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Foo for Thought -- Reflections on "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" (2011)

I've been racking my brain for the last hour or so -- something very hard to do, believe me -- trying to figure out what the last great rock album was. The music scene over the last few years has been dominated by dance/pop, hip-hop/rap, and indie rock music. Bands like Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, Radiohead and Muse have all released excellent records, but it's hard to call any of them rock albums. We've seen albums from Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty that have been good, but not great.

Almost quietly, it seems, the Foo Fighters have recorded one of the best rock albums in the last several years with their new album Wasting Light. The album, which will be released nationwide on April 12th, is straightforward rock, which is pretty risky in today's novelty-driven music scene (re: Rebecca Black). Songs like "Rope," "White Limo," and "I Should Have Known" are powerful, heavy riff-and-roll, and showcase the Foo Fighters assets as a band.

To promote the album, the Foos filmed a documentary feature about their years as a band. The documentary, Back and Forth, was screened tonight at theaters nationwide, followed by a live performance by the band of the new material.

Basics: The Foo Fighters, birthed out of leader Dave Grohl's grief over the death of Kurt Cobain, have released seven albums and been through a long, strange, rewarding journey. The documentary follows their progress as a band by using each album as a milestone. We learn of band members who either left the band or were dismissed, hear about drug and alcohol problems, creative conflicts, and get to see footage of the Foos recording Wasting Light Grohl's garage last year.

Familiar, but Fun: the documentary is a pretty standard rock doc. It follows the rise of the band, its struggles to survive, and its current triumphs. Yet, for all the familiarity, the Foos come across as a fun, charismatic, functional group of musicians and friends. Grohl, in particular, has a great sense of humor, which is evidenced in well-placed interviews. He's also more than willing to allow us to see the darker side of his personality, like when he pushed out the band's original drummer by moving the recording of the group's second album The Colour and the Shape from Seattle to Los Angeles so he could re-record all the drum tracks himself. It's that sort of honesty that cuts through the traditional documentary material and gives this one a personality of its own.

Family Matters: one of the best things about this documentary is the focus on family. Not just the "band as family," but actual family, too. The film's last segment focuses on the recording of the Foos current album, and we get to be a fly-on-the-wall in Grohl's garage to watch the band members record their parts, critique each other, and interact in ways that never feel staged. Because this is all happening at Grohl's house in Encino, we get the pleasure of watching Grohl's daughter flit in-and-out of the studio, reminding her daddy of promises to go swimming. The best moment here is when Grohl is trying to record an intricate track while his little girl taps him on the shoulder. Normally this wouldn't even be a big deal, except the Foos decided to record Wasting Light in the old-fashioned analog way, on tape, meaning that each take pretty much needed to be perfect because there was no digital process to fall back on as a safety net.

Live Performances are Weird at Movie Theaters: I was excited to watch the Foo Fighters perform their new album live from Los Angeles after the movie. They are a great live band, their brand of rock music readymade for the stage. And as a band, they did not disappoint, ripping through the songs on Wasting Light with passion and fury. Unfortunately, for as good as the songs sounded, the overall vibe of the performance was weak. Their performance was done in a studio, not in front of a crowd, so everything seemed antiseptic. In addition, the crowd I was with never really got into the performance outside of clapping politely after each song. Live music -- and musicians -- feed off of a buzzing crowd, and the performance here just had that missing piece: crowd energy. Personally, I felt the live performances from the documentary felt more intense and moving than the in-studio set.

There is no doubt that the Foo Fighters have made a great rock album. I can see several of the current cuts setting rock radio on fire this summer. And if anything, this double feature of documentary and live performance has only whetted my appetite to get tickets to see them in person when they come to town.

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