Foo Fighters take positive step with ‘Concrete and Gold’ but fall victim to excessive emulation

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

At this point, we kind of have to ask — “Who, exactly, are the Foo Fighters?”

The answer seems obvious — the band has been a rock staple and cultural juggernaut for more than a decade now, with hits such as “Learn to Fly,” “Best of You” and “Monkey Wrench” to keep fans satisfied.

But it has also been panned year after year by critics for a perceived staleness — leading to ill-advised alternative forays that found few new fans and began instead to drive away fans the band already had.

With Sonic Highways in 2014, the band tried out a road trip for inspiration, recording in some of the most storied studios across the country. But even then, the attempt failed to land a punch — evidently, people aren’t looking for a concept-album-as-love-letter-to-rock’s-history, as interesting as the accompanying HBO documentary attempted to make it look.

Now we have Concrete and Gold, and it would seem the answer to our initial question is: Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Queen, Motörhead and AC/DC — all at once. Perhaps frontman Dave Grohl figured that if he simply became some critically acclaimed bands, he’d find critical success. He even described the album as “Motörhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper.”

As the reviews for Concrete and Gold trickle in, the plan seems to be working — critics are finding the mix of styles refreshing. But you’ll notice something odd, which is that almost every track mentioned in reviews is conveniently tagged with some band from rock’s heyday — or more than a band, a specific song. The title-track finale is actually just Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage/ Eclipse”: in chordal structure; in melody lines; in vocal harmonies; in atmospheric effects; in its soft opening half that bursts into … you get the picture.

It’s unfortunate to have to use the word “shameless” to describe any piece of music — all music, but particularly the bands the Foo Fighters are mining for inspiration here, are so woven into the cultural fabric that it’s almost impossible not to be informed by them in some way. But there are moments spread across Concrete and Gold that are uncomfortably close facsimiles of their predecessors.

And that’s unfortunate, because there are, alternatively, moments in this album that really capture a unique ethos — and not one of recognizable historic rock eras, but of the Foo Fighters themselves, goddamn it! Both “Run” and “The Sky Is A Neighborhood” feel right at home for the band — another band producing them would be considered Foo Fighters-esque. Both tracks capture the band’s ability to combine melodic rock and sparse, almost indie construction with heavy post-grunge, and both songs are hugely enjoyable listens.

The Foo Fighters also step up to make some overt political statements, and something about the band’s style engenders itself to doing so without seeming kitschy. “Turn up the American ruse / Whitehouse, death in June,” Grohl sings on “La Dee Da” — and on album opener “T-Shirt,” he tells his fellow Americans, “There’s one thing I have learned / It it gets much better / It’s going to get worse / And you get what you deserve.” In “The Line,” a “dirty black cloud coming out of the blue” hints further at the current state of affairs in what becomes a search for a “sign of life” in the world.

But the band, thankfully, doesn’t get too bogged down in the details of political dissent. Most of the album chugs along in standard Foo Fighters fashion, albeit with more variety and light footedness that will leave it as a marked improvement over past efforts. Already, the first two released singles have been enjoying a nice popularity; “Run” has over 16 million views on YouTube and 17 million streams on Spotify.

And, in direct contrast with albums of late, some of the deeper cuts are enjoyable enough to return to for repeated listens. “Arrows” gives us both a killer chorus chord progression and an engaging narrative to follow. On “Sunday Rain” and “Dirty Water,” the potentially red-flag decision of working with producer Greg Kurstin (Sia, Adele) pays off — both tracks have more than 5 minutes to work with that allow Kurstin to reign in the band’s inclination to launch into chugging, heavy rock 50 seconds in. “Dirty Water” delays gratification until around the 2 minute 50 mark before launching into heavy, Muse-esque riffing; “Sunday Rain” doesn’t bifurcate itself at all, moving smoothly between heavier and softer sections in a kind of Guns N’ Roses way, before culminating in an unexpected piano riff.

Taken as a whole, Concrete and Gold is in many ways a reflection of its title — gold in some places, concrete in others. In its golden moments, it shines with the spark that has carried the band through two decades of popularity. But despite the newfound listenability it brings to the band’s music, the album’s reliance at times on established, attributed sonical themes leaves a lingering sense that the retreads aren’t necessary.

Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.