When Dave Grohl described the new Foo Fighters album as “our ‘Let’s Dance’,” referencing David Bowie’s hit-heavy 1983 smash, fans of the rock band known for its raw, crusty assault of guitar riffs and fist-pounding rhythms may have found themselves somewhat flummoxed. The Foos have always been a big-sounding band with a bigger-sounding bang, and while melodically, Grohl can match the best pop writers of today and yesteryear, pivoting towards that cosmopolitan gloss is not a direction anyone might have predicted for the stalwarts of arena rock.
Yet here it is on “Medicine at Midnight,” a blissfully concise 36 minutes of sprightly unabashed grooves led by a shaggy dog-eared leader who’s always eager to tease. Helping the Foos realize its sonic goals on this tenth album in a little over 25 years is producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Maren Morris), who guides its boyish, biggest-ever beats into soulful, singalong territory, as well as “Let’s Dance” drummer-percussionist Omar Hakim, who appears liberally throughout “Medicine at Midnight.”
Recorded before the pandemic, the collection oozes positivity in the form of gang vocals by a trio of female backup singers (among them: Barbara Gruska, of the Belle Brigade fame and a fellow badass drummer) even when touching on such lyrical themes as loneliness and shame. Guitarists Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett and Grohl himself, along with Taylor Hawkins on drums, Rami Jaffee on keys and Nate Mendel on bass, help realize the no-muss, no-fuss, nine song tracklist which does indeed have good grooves and high kicks.
Starting with “Making a Fire,” which is adorned with na-na-nas that nod to Lenny Kravitz’s swaggering brand of fired up rhythm-rock-and-blues, the wildly contagious choruses and a gorgeous vocal bridge (“Are you afraid of the dark? I know a place we can start”) provide one powerful curtain raiser of a hip-shaking cut. “Shame Shame” follows. An oddball in the Foos canon of singles, as it shows off Grohl’s growl smoothed to a low croon, it strangely works with the track’s spare, slow shimmying vibe and supplely thumbed bass, all nestled into Kurstin’s moaning, bowing strings that land like a billowy pillow. Grohl eventually grouches it up with a crowd-baiting chant, making “Shame Shame” a chef’s kiss of a track two.
Further on, the ponderously atmospheric strings of “Waiting on a War” set less of a romantic table, while still provoking Grohl and Co. to action. Complimented by Smear’s rush of brushed denim acoustic guitars and deeply undulating rhythms, the singer opens and extends his baritone like never before, as he pulls lyric lines like taffy, and ruminates about a childhood waiting for the sky to fall, while toting toy guns by his side. As is the Foos’ want, the torrid track gets cold, loud, fast and screechy until it ends abruptly — and gloriously.
The Bowie-est of the songs is the title track, “Medicine at Midnight,” which finds a crooning Grohl uncomfortably slick at first, but multiple listens reveal Hakim’s clickity-clack percussion in the background as both satisfying and sensual. If it feels like a rip-off, it’s a really righteous one.
Kurstin, too, does a fascinating buff job of copy-catting the polished, hot wax sheen that producer Nile Rodgers gave Bowie’s sleek 1983 classic. Surely, it’s that chic feel that the Foos found so seductive. Yet, rather than utilize reeds, brass and horn arrangements, Kurstin uplifts the Foos bridges and choruses with opulently arranged chamber strings for an added layer of luster. To wit: closing track “Love Dies Young,” which might feel as at home on 1980s MTV as it would on a Big Star record.
Things take a bit of a mellow turn on “Chasing Birds,” on which Grohl uses his inside voice to soothing effect, along with amusing lyrical twists (“The road to hell is paved with broken parts, Bleeding hearts like mine”) and a Kurstin-fueled coda that bends at exactly the right place. But things only remain quiet for so long, as “Medicine” is blanketed by the urgency of songs like “No Son of Mine” and the pulsing “Holding Poison.”
Grohl promised a record you can groove to, and he delivered, while still maintaining a quintessential crunch that’s fitting for a Foo.
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