Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Road from Nirvana

Foo Fighters and Bush

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  It's hard to avoid hearing echoes of Nirvana in the explosive soft/loud dynamics, the deeply abraded guitar textures, the dry, pounding drums, and the raspy desperation of the vocals that define the sonic contours of "Stacked Actors," the opening track on There Is Nothing Left To Lose (Roswell/RCA), the new album by Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters. Much harder than on, say, the disc's first single, the rounder-toned and more melodically inclined "Learn To Fly." And that's not just because Grohl was the Nirvana drummer whose muscular thump helped propel that band through some long-forgotten tear in a cultural fabric that unraveled for a moment, or maybe a series of moments that seemed to last forever, until it ended almost as unexpectedly as it began. It's also because "Stacked Actors" dredges up a sound, or a combination of sounds, that Nirvana appeared to have invented all by themselves in 1991, even though its parts were all well-worm scraps borrowed from too many sources to enumerate -- from the Pixies and the Jesus Lizard and Black Flag and Sonic Youth and Killing Joke and maybe even Leadbelly or the roar of a dozen chainsaws tearing into the Aberdeen forest.

But, three albums into Grohl's post-Nirvana career as a Foo Fighter, it's also getting easier not to read too much into a line like "Can you take it/Can you make it look like we won," which does carry with it a tantalizing hint that "Stacked Actors" might be trying to reveal something of Grohl's feelings about his former band -- much easier than, say, if Courtney Love were screaming the same line. Grohl has allowed Nirvana to slip slowly into his past, to recede as naturally as the tide going out on a beach that ends up looking no bigger to all but the most careful observer -- but that tide comes crashing back at regular intervals. And if Grohl feels like returning for an occasional dip in the churning waters of his past, well, it's his past to dip into.

That's what songs like "Stacked Actors" and the punkish new pop tune "Breakout" feel like -- little dips into nirvanas past. The bulk of the album (in stores this Tuesday) finds Grohl forging ahead on a road that leads away from Nirvana -- away from the chemically unbalanced guitar surges, the needling feedback, and the ulcerating noise of Cobain's territorial pissings -- toward a power-pop paradise of strum 'n' jangle hooks, bright hummable melodies, and tight little tunes that stick without drawing blood. Rolling Stone reviewer Greg Kot even likens the sunnier-sounding Grohl to Lemonhead Evan Dando, which may be going a bit far. But there is a pleasant hint of romantic playfulness in "Breakout," the title of which seems to refer more to a rash of some sort, as in "You make me breakout/I don't wanna look like that," than to any kind of escape plan. And the song's big-payoff guitar riff is actually an inversion of the hook from Urge Overkill's 1993 bubblegrunge hit "Sister Havana" -- which is kind of a nice reminder that not everyone involved in the alternative nation was a brooding lost soul.

In the liner notes to Incesticide (DGC), Kurt Cobain wrote, "I'll be the first to admit that we're the '90s version of Cheap Trick or the Knack but the last to admit that it hasn't been rewarding." I've always found the wording of that sentence confusing: it almost seems he's saying Nirvana haven't been rewarding for him. And given the tenor of his suicide note, in which he went on about "faking it," it seems clear that being a pop star in a pop band like Cheap Trick or the Knack posed a problem for the punk in Kurt that he never resolved.

So maybe that's the real Nirvana legacy that Grohl has inherited -- the unresolved tension between the punk underground that gave birth to Nirvana and the pop mainstream that placed the band in the center of a cultural zeitgeist. If so, then Grohl's best defense has been in simply not getting defensive about the success he's had with the Foo Fighters. It helped that his debut, 1995's Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capitol), was just Dave playing all the instruments, banging through a modest collection of songs that sounded neither too much nor too little like Nirvana, and that he was just the drummer so nobody expected too much right off the bat. And it didn't hurt that the first band he drafted -- former Germs/Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear and the rhythm section of Seattle's Sunny Day Real Estate -- had underground cred. Since then, Grohl's gradually emerged from behind a wall of guitars, in tracks like the acoustic ballad "Walking After You," from 1997's The Colour and the Shape (Roswell/Capitol), and even more so on tracks like There Is Nothing Left To Lose's slightly twangy "Ain't It the Life" (which, come to think of it, does bring to mind the Lemonheads). Mostly, though, for all the ominous implications of its title, There Is Nothing Left To Lose is simply a logical progression forward from The Colour and the Shape -- a looser, more confident stab at putting feelings into words, words into melodies, and melodies into guitar-driven songs that sound good on the radio. And in that sense it's Grohl's way of proving that being a Cheap Trick for the '90s really is rewarding.

It's also difficult to avoid hearing echoes of Nirvana in "Warm Machine," the song that opens the new album from England's Bush, The Science of Things (Trauma). And that's not just because Bush are the band who launched their career in 1994 with an album, Sixteen Stone (Trauma/Interscope), and a hit song, "Everything Zen," that seemed as calculated an attempt to capitalize and commodify the sound and style of Nevermind as anything before (or since). It's also because, from the first crushing chord of "Warm Machine" straight through to the last crushing chord of "Mindchanger," it's clear that Bush haven't experienced much in the way of musical growth since Sixteen Stone. Of course, there's no sense in fixing something that's not broken. But Bush's last album, 1996's Razorblade Suitcase (Trauma/Interscope), SoundScanned only half as many units as Sixteen Stone's 5.3 million, so maybe a change of plan is in order. If so, it'll have to wait until after Y2K, because for right now, despite the addition of some techno embellishments, Bush's singer and main songwriter, Gavin Rossdale, appears to be stuck somewhere in utero.

That's not to say that The Science of Things doesn't have its strong points. Rossdale usually has a single or two in him, and this time he comes through with a decent one in "The Chemicals Between Us." It's one of several tracks in which producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who worked on Sixteen Stone but were passed over for Steve Albini on Razorblade Suitcase, help update the grunge formula of industrial-strength distorted guitars, snaking bass lines, and down-and-out-of-options vocals with modern programming touches and drum loops -- none of which detracts much from the essential Nirvana-ness of the overall sound. In fact, "English Fire" finds Langer/Winstanley admirably approximating the dry crack of the patented Albini studio approach, and when the strings come in to rub shoulders with discordant percussive guitars and Rossdale starts singing "We'll hang ourselves," it feels like 1996 all over again.

Rossdale's biggest weakness is in one area where Kurt Cobain managed to excel -- lyrics. The dark, ominous tone of the musical backdrops on The Science of Things suggests that he has something heavy to say, something meaningful, something painful and precise. But as "Everything Zen" revealed early on, most of what comes out of his mouth is nonsense. "There is nowhere left to hide/There is nothing to be done/No people to be saved/No pets were never named/40 miles from the sun," he rasps against the churning backdrop of "40 Miles from the Sun," one of several somewhat sci-fi-themed tracks in which he plays the part of a mechanical animal romancing the void. And when all else fails, Rossdale simply resorts to the old "Teen Spirit" trick of "Mosquito/Libido" juxtaposition, as in the "Mistrusted/Disrupted" and "Invaded/Downgraded" pairings that flesh out the humorously (and inexplicably) titled "The Disease of the Dancing Cat."

The real question a song like "The Disease of the Dancing Cat" and an album like The Science of Things raise in my mind is how well would Kurt Cobain's own style of songwriting have held up through another couple of albums with or without Nirvana? Would he have outgrown his morbid obsessions and moody tantrums? Would he have found new ways to channel his dark thoughts? Rossdale's compulsion to sound as if the world were collapsing inward upon him has grown more tiresome over the years, though it was always less tolerable than Kurt's mood swings anyway. And maybe that's part of what makes a disc like the Foo Fighters' There Is Nothing Left To Lose so refreshing. It's evidence that there's a bright side to the Nirvana legacy.

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