There's clearly a struggle going on as Dave Grohl attempts to meld the best of two musical worlds. On his past two albums with the Foo Fighters (2005's In Your Honor and last year's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace), the singer/songwriter/guitarist/powerhouse drummer showcased more of his melodic pop leanings alongside the thrashing, riotous "rawk" that cemented his fame more than a decade ago.
In Your Honor was explicit in its display of the two styles: One disc was loud with screaming vocals and screaming guitars. The other was quiet with acoustic guitars, hushed crooning and pretty melodies. Though flawed, the double-set still presented a reinvigorated Foo Fighters, one of the headliners on the South Stage at Virgin Mobile Festival on Saturday.
On Echoes, the band's latest CD, Grohl tries to do it all seamlessly. But it doesn't quite come off that way. The hard-rock tunes, his musical signature for years, are now so professional, so calculated, that they sound like retreads - laborious ones at that. You know just when the chorus is going to surge and crash. But beyond that, the humor - an attractive element that set the Foos apart early on - is noticeably absent these days. Grohl's sincerity seems to surface more on the quieter tunes, the ones where he gets to show off in an unadorned way the melody maker he has always been.
If the latest albums are any indication, it seems Grohl, the engine of the Foo Fighters, needs some time to refocus the group's direction. The kind of angst-ridden, sometimes sophomoric songs that defined his approach in the '90s sounds forced and maybe disingenuous these days, especially coming from a 39-year-old millionaire rock star.
With more than a decade of success, the Foo Fighters have certainly earned the right to be more musically explorative. The band doesn't have much to lose at this point. So plunging head-first into a completely different musical pool would be a refreshing change of pace. But on their latest albums, Grohl and the Foos seem content to tentatively dip their toes into something they haven't already done to death.
As I listen to the most recent Foo albums, the only songs that offer a glimmer of genuineness are the stripped-down ones. The acoustic side of In Your Honor is consistently engaging. As for Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (whose title ever so slightly reeks of pretension), the lean, easy cuts such as "Summer's End" and "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Minders" are the unassailable standouts.
Before the release of In Your Honor, Grohl admitted (well, kind of admitted) to feeling stagnant in the modern-rock realm.
"At first I thought [In Your Honor] should be an acoustic album and that we should start exploring that side of the band and that dynamic, and go out and do something different," the artist said in a 2005 interview with online music magazine Ear Candy. "There wasn't a shortage of material for the acoustic record. It was actually the rock record that posed the biggest challenge."
The band hasn't quite transcended the challenge yet. But I imagine it's hard for Grohl to concentrate on the evolution of the Foo Fighters' sound as he spreads himself over other projects. For years, he's been one of the most ubiquitous men in hard rock. Before catapulting to pop fame as the drummer for the celebrated '90s grunge band Nirvana, he toured the rock underground extensively with the group Scream. After establishing the Foo Fighters as a rock hits machine in the mid '90s, the Ohio-born, Virginia-raised Grohl found side hustles. He formed a metal band called Probot and collaborated with or played drums for a myriad of acts, including Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, Garbage, David Bowie and even Paul McCartney.
But on his hard-rock projects outside the Foo Fighters, Grohl sounds freer, like he's actually having a good time. The 2004 Probot album, a straight-up metal affair, was unhinged and surprisingly engaging. But too often that devil-may-care sense of adventure doesn't surface much on the Foo albums. Granted, Echoes isn't without its hard-rock hits, namely "The Pretender" and "Cheer Up Boys (Your Make Up Is Running)." But something about those songs feels unyieldingly sober and tightly wound, as if Grohl got together with the Foos in the studio and said, "Look, let's get these hard-rock tunes out of the way - the same way we've always done 'em. Then we can move on to these sweet songs I have here."
The sweeter ones, where the melodies subtly bend and sway, show more growth. The hard-rock sound that defined the Foo Fighters seems to be in a state of inertia - powerful, but still and unchanged. Grohl hasn't yet consolidated the strengths of his acoustic and electric sides. But I wouldn't mind if he unplugged completely for a while. He's rich, a doting father of a 3-year-old girl and known to be the "nicest guy in rock." Seems like Grohl has little to scream about these days.