Foo Fighters follow a well-worn path as the edge moves toward the center


November 18, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Foo Fighters

There Is Nothing Left to Lose (RCA 07863 67892)

As music history books remind us, punk began as a reaction against how pompous and predictable mainstream rock had become. Its pugnacious power chords and pummeling pulse were used to chip away at the layers of cliche that had begun to calcify the once-vital sound of rock and roll. And it worked; for a few moments, the music seemed fresh, exciting, even dangerous again.

But one of the great ironies of popular culture is that even rebellion, if it becomes popular enough, will eventually turn into the status quo. What one counted as a rude poke in the eye now stands as a mark of conformity, and suddenly, those who made their mark by going against the grain find themselves safely in the center of the musical mainstream.

So it is that Dave Grohl, who helped turn the rock world on its head in 1991 while drumming with punk revivalists Nirvana, has eight years later wound up making the contemporary equivalent of album rock. "Learn to Fly," the third track on "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," is already a big hit on Billboard's Modern Rock radio chart, filing the Foos in the same stylistic pigeonhole as Santana, Def Leppard, and Z.Z. Top.

It isn't as if Grohl and company sold out, particularly. There's plenty of raucous energy in the album's songs, from the amped-up opening salvo of "Stacked Actors" to the clangorous closing chorus to "M.I.A." Crank the volume high enough, and it's easy to pretend that the band is every bit as angry and alienated as the punk bands were -- only a tad more tuneful.

Listen a little more carefully, however, and it sounds like punk rock rage just ain't what it used to be. "Stacked Actors" may have Grohl screaming through the chorus about wanting to know the truth, but a close look at the verse suggests that the truth Grohl seeks has more to do with silicone-augmented screen stars than government functionaries. Likewise, the roaring guitars of "Live-In Skin" support nothing more radical than a song about the importance of being oneself, and the desperate thrum of "M.I.A." merely masks a love song about a man who wants to "get lost in" his beloved.

If the album's lack of lyrical edge seems a step back from punk iconoclasm, some of the musical ideas are even more pop-friendly. "Gimme Stitches" tools along on the same sort of boogie guitar lick rockers have recycled since Z.Z. Top's "La Grange" stole it from John Lee Hooker, while the sweet, jangly "Ain't It the Life" offers uncanny echoes of the Byrds.

But as much as the Foo Fighters seem to be settling into the comforts of mainstream accessibility, the band has so far managed to avoid the most egregious cliches of post-punk rock. So yeah, punk may not be as angry or edgy as it once was, but listenability is still a better deal than faked rebellion. ***


Counting Crows

This Desert Life (DGC 069490415)

One of the most interesting developments in rock during the '90s has been the emergence of neo-classic rock acts -- young bands like Counting Crows, the Black Crowes and the Wallflowers that actively evoked the sound and aesthetic of classic rock while somehow seeming youthful and fresh. Fortunately, there's nothing illusory about the sense of musical virility that Counting Crows bring to "This Desert Life." As much as Adam Duritz's drawling delivery seems the low-key confidence of Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, there's nothing quite so obvious about what he sings. In fact, between the funky exuberance of the sly, bass-driven "Hanging Around," and the discursive psychedelia of "I Wish I Was a Girl," Counting Crows sounds more original and vital now than on the band's debut. ***

Simply Red

Love and the Russian Winter (EastWest 62481)

It ought to be a law: If you have a great voice, you should only be allowed to sing great songs. But until such legislation goes through, someone should hammer that point home to Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall. As a vocalist, Hucknall is easily on par with the likes of Rod Stewart or Daryl Hall. As a writer, however, he's a hack of the first order, with the end result that the songs on "Love and the Russian Winter" are every bit as awful and pretentious as the album title itself. The album's smooth, club-savvy groove makes things a bit more bearable, mitigating the awkwardness of Hucknall's meandering melodies. But on the whole, it would take more than a remix to fix these tunes. *

Rob Zombie

American Made Music to Strip By (Geffen 069490349)

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