Friday, February 26, 2021

Shame Shame or Breakout? The Foo Fighters are back with their 10th album, Medicine at Midnight

“It's like a pop song with lots of shouting in it”: Dave Grohl and Co. veer away from their traditional hard rock sound toward an almost summery, pop-oriented album with Medicine at Midnight.

After having the first weekend to fully digest the latest offering from Foo Fighters’, Medicine at Midnight, Archie provides his thoughts on the group's first entry to change up the post-grunge formula in favour of a more pop-rock sound.  
Some might argue, especially nowadays, that the Foo Fighters fit neatly into the often-dismissive category of “dad rock” (ironic for me as it was in fact my own father who introduced me to their music in the first place) and that would make sense as the band has been around for nearly three decades and the generation that grew up listening to their songs now may well be parents themselves. But their latest release, Medicine at Midnight, an album described by Dave Grohl as a “fun record” that was influenced by the likes of David Bowie, might just be the album to change that opinion.

The band's tenth studio album was written toward the end of 2018 and recorded over the summer of 2019 - less than a year after Dave Grohl stated that the Foo’s would be taking a long break to rest following the extensive touring and promotion of Concrete and Gold (2017). Despite being on a break, Grohl (a man who seemingly doesn’t know what rest is) already had a couple of ideas for a follow up record and began constructing home demos, with his fellow bandmates pitching in as the weeks went on.

Recording took place in Los Angeles, a city Dave described as having a permanent “cloud of anxiety” hanging over it even before the pandemic, in a large 1940s home in Encino. The grounds itself were, allegedly, haunted, Dave recalled:

"I knew the vibes were definitely off, but the sound was fucking on. We would come back to the studio the next day and all of the guitars would be detuned. Or the setting we'd put on the board - all of them had gone back to zero. We would open up a Pro Tools session and tracks would be missing. There were some tracks that were put on there that we didn't put on there. But just like weird open mic noises. Nobody playing an instrument or anything like that, just an open mic recording a room.”

Dave also lamented that, unlike previous recording sessions, where the group would end the day with a barbeque or a party, they would pack up and leave as soon as possible due - apparently “unexplainable” footage was captured on camera during the recording sessions but the group signed a non-disclosure agreement with the homeowner who was currently trying to sell the properly.
Despite the strange goings on, the band had the space to experiment in different ways in order to capture the unique sound they were after for the album.

“We got to really experiment with all these weird locations in the house” Foos producer Greg Kurstin told Variety “we’d set up the drums in the living room or, for “Shame Shame,” in the stairwell in like a three-foot-by-three-foot space.”

You can only imagine the amount of power produced by the almighty Taylor Hawkins in such a small space - the vibrations must’ve been felt across the entire house.

The band announced the album's completion in February 2020, along with The Van Tour to celebrate their 25th anniversary - with plans to play in the same cities they visited in 1995 as part of their first North American tour. 

“The record was done a year ago.” Dave told Chris Moyles on Friday (5/2/21) “The trucks were packed with equipment; the t-shirts were made. We were ready to go! And then everything shut down.”

As the pandemic raged on, the group realised it would be wise to postpone The Van Tour and the new album until after the pandemic was over. However, after a couple months of sitting around and COVID-19 still ever present, Dave decided that the album should be released in order to lift the spirits of the Foos’ fans who were already missing out on seeing them live. In November of last year, the world got its first glimpse of Medicine at Midnight, when the group released its first single Shame Shame.

Upon its release, the track received some criticism from diehard fans, who accused the group of becoming “woke” with their politics and changing up their sound to appeal to a new audience. It's understandable to see why the devoted fans weren’t all that hyped when this new track came out as it doesn’t sound like a conventional Foo Fighters track: the slow tempo grounded by the constant drum beat doesn’t pick up, there's no brash guitar or drum solo and Dave Grohl doesn’t unleash his screaming vocals at any point. Shame Shame is unlikely to make any “top 10 Foo Fighters songs” list, but it does become a very catchy number after a couple of listens (I’m singing “shame duh duh shame duh duh” as I'm writing this). It was this particular track that became the jumping off point for the group to begin experimenting in terms of a new sound and heading into “another territory” music-wise.

Now as previously stated, Medicine at Midnight is not your typical Foo Fighters album and if you were to open Spotify now and play the first few seconds of Making A Fire, the opening tack, you’d be confused by what met you - drum loops and a backing choir in particular. But as the track rolls on, the indistinguishable sound of the Foo Fighters becomes ever more apparent and you find the inclusion of the choir - which features Dave Grohl’s daughter, Violet - actually fits in very well with the wider song (especially in that breakdown towards the end!) In retrospect, the line from the second verse “Your new favourites going out of style” feels like a jab back at their critics for complaining about their change of style for this record. Overall, a strong album opener.
Cloudspotter is one of the more interesting tracks on the album and as Grohl sings of guillotine Queens and references the works of Rock-God's past (the astute amongst you may have noticed the Jimi Hendrix "refuse me while I kiss the sky" reference) you can tell that this track is definitely heavily inspired by 80's pop-rock, especially David Bowie - who was one the main influences on this album. It's like a pop song with lots of shouting in it and with its jaunty guitars and, what I think is a cowbell(?), it's the very definition of a pop-rock fusion. This is rock radio station Foo Fighters, not as heavy with the guitars but just as shouty on the vocals, it's summery/hazy guilty pleasure of a rock track. It shouldn't work, but it somehow does.
Waiting on a War, track four, is without doubt the standout song on the whole album and, yes, probably the most Foo Fighters-esque. Released as a single on the date of Dave’s 52nd birthday, the track was inspired by a conversation he had with his daughter Harper on the way to school one day when she had asked him if there was going to be a war soon.
“My heart sank as I realized that she was now living under the same dark cloud that I had felt 40 years ago. I wrote "Waiting on a War" that day.”
Dave went on to explain growing up in Washington during the height of the Cold War, he experienced similar feelings of dread and anxiety wondering if it all would be over soon. 
The song feels like a modern day equivalent of Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance with its soulful acoustic beginning that explodes into a fury of rock in its final minute after the swelling of strings, drums and electric guitars have taken it as high as it can go. It definitely has a more traditional Foo Fighters feel to it and it is, arguably, one of the best tracks they have written in a long time.
Medicine at Midnight is a funky bass-driven track that leans hard into the Bowie inspiration, with the vocal delivery, reverb and guitar tones sounding very reminiscent of the Thin White Duke's Let's Dance. Despite it being the title track, there really isn’t anything too exciting going on here and at three and a half minutes, it is over just as quick as it began.
Sounding not a million miles away from Motörhead’s Ace of Spades, No Son of Mine was the second single released back in early January. Bassist Nate Mendel said that recording was "challenging" for him as the band approached things differently by "constructing things from the ground up" as opposed to their usual method of "recording them more live to tape and just kind of sitting in a room and playing." This is another example of a more traditional sounding Foo Fighters song and where Medicine at Midnight didn’t offer much in a similar time-frame, No Son of Mine is simply a good song that is much too short. Maybe it will be extended when it's played live, it would be a shame if not.
Holding Poison builds on from No Son of Mine in that it is more of a hard rock track than any of the others on the album thus far. Here you can expect to find the balls to wall guitar solos, drum breakdowns and wailing vocals that you’ve been waiting for. This is one of the better songs on the album. There's not much more to say than that really, it's an example of your standard Foo Fighters song.
The album then takes a sudden dip into slower, almost psychedelic territory with Chasing Birds, a territory the band have not really ventured into before. Despite this, I really quite like this track, it sounds similar to something you’d find on the later works of John Lennon, I can definitely hear him singing this track. Interestingly this song also features backing vocals in the form of a sample from The Bird and the Bee singer Inara George, who also featured on Dirty Water from their last album, Concrete and Gold.
Love Dies Young brings the album to a close in the conventional Foo Fighters style fans know and love, you see yourself jumping around, ecstatic, if this were to be played live or in a club. You can already tell that this will soon become a live favourite. The tone, catchy chorus and general style of this song remind me of Walk from Wasting Light (2011). This album, displaying a more colourful and lighthearted side of the Foo Fighters, almost feels like a spiritual successor or even B-side compilation from Wasting Light itself. 
Medicine at Midnight is a solid piece of work, perhaps not the best Foo Fighters album, but still a great rock album nonetheless. If it has taught us anything, it's that Dave Grohl and Co. still know how to compose music that will be talked about long after its release. Personally, I have enjoyed getting to view this lighter side of the Foo Fighters and after 25 years in the music industry, it is refreshing to see them experimenting with new musical styles to keep things new and exciting for fans. These new tracks are, if nothing else, fresh and original ideas that will undoubtedly get the great live treatment they deserve from the band when gigs are allowed to return in the near future, but perhaps the album shines brightest when the Foos stick to the tried and tested formula they know works: Rock. Plain and simple.

Archie Richards

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