Talk about beating the odds: The list of great rock drummers who later emerged as substantial singer/songwriters could fit on one side of the tiniest Post-it note. The fact that 26-year-old Dave Grohl has already spent three years pounding his kit for Nirvana — the '90s act with the finest creativity-popularity ratio to date — doesn't exactly improve his chances of going it alone. Then there was the name of Grohl's new group. Foo Fighters? Sounds like an unpromising spinoff of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Fortunately, none of these inhibiting factors has deterred Grohl from assembling this remarkable yet coolly understated solo debut. He sings and plays virtually every note. And like the real-life foofighters — fiery UFO-like apparitions that haunted U.S. pilots during World War II — the band emits a disorienting glow. While the music's frazzled, spark-plug guitars attest to Grohl's late-'80s tenure on the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene, its melodies, silvery edge and spirit conjure up various other rock eras. The expansive harmonies of the early Beach Boys ("Exhausted"), the arch craftsmanship of mid-'70s Steve Miller ("Oh, George") and the cartoonish aggression of Cheap Trick at their peak ("Good Grief") are all touchstones for Foo Fighters' refreshingly unfashionable mishmash.
Appreciate that Grohl is no songwriter arriviste: As far back as 1987, the pre-Nirvana Virginia resident began squirreling away compositions; the first were written in between tours with D.C. legends Scream. Patched together in the years since, the songs on Foo Fighters seemingly can't help documenting the rise and demise of alternative music and the band that led the flock. "Alone and Easy Target," penned during the rags-to-riches flurry that followed the 1991 release of Nirvana's Nevermind, issues a warning: "Crazy TV dreams might be true/Not what it seems."
Less obviously, "I'll Stick Around" — ostensibly a bitter love song — barrels toward a chilling break in which Grohl shouts, "I don't owe you anything," over and over. Like Nirvana's best work, these songs sagely embrace alternative rock's essential contradiction — this is "popular" music devised by an alienated few.
The album's first track, "This Is a Call," is even more entrancing. Boisterous yet bittersweet, it's either the fragmented story of a wildly dysfunctional family or a raucous punk-rock fantasia. By the song's end, its vibrant palette of punched-up guitar sounds and precise, powerful drumming has magically elucidated — and obliterated — its meaning.
Dave Grohl could turn out to be the '90s punk equivalent of Tom Petty, whose vocal timbre and wry manner he occasionally approximates here. Like Petty, Grohl displays a good-natured humility that belies his talent for nailing the raw emotional substance that lies just beneath the surface of the average rock cliché. In less-practiced hands, "Big Me," for example, would be dismissed as a shameless rip-off of the Beatles circa 1965, but here, Grohl miraculously lands lyrical howlers like "It's you/I fell into" with expert grace. Foo Fighters is not so much about innovation as it is about mining punk for its particularly pleasing aspects. So no matter how fast or damaged the music becomes, those solid and carefully constructed melodies prevail.
In fact, the main quality Foo Fighters share with Nirvana is making deliriously frisky punk rock seem absolutely effortless. But with the exception of the cryptic "Weenie Beenie" and the dreamy "X-Static" (which features the album's lone cameo, Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs on guitar), Foo Fighters takes a decidedly more straightforward approach. And judging from the live Foo Fighters (Pat Smear on guitar, Grohl on guitar and vocals and former Sunny Day Real Estate members Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith on bass and drums, respectively), which recently opened a short tour for Mike Watt, a formidable band lurks in the shadows, hopefully setting the stage for a monster follow-up.
In light of Kurt Cobain's sudden, brutal suicide, clarity and force were not what one might have expected from a surviving band mate's initial solo foray. The album's only disappointment is that despite its home-studio feel (it was co-produced by Grohl and Barrett Jones), it ultimately reveals little about its creator. But one must consider the larger message contained in this mammoth adrenalin rush. If Foo Fighters has a theme, it's that music remains the ultimate anodyne.