The Colour and the Shape
Slight expectations are easy to meet. Who knew that Dave Grohl wrote songs before the Foo Fighters' 1995 debut? And what a pleasant surprise Foo Fighters was, proof that Nirvana's pop-punk glory didn't die with Kurt Cobain. "I'll Stick Around" and "This Is a Call" aren't the equal of Cobain's best, but Foo Fighters earned most of its raves, and million-plus sales, too. Any doubts were offset by sheer disbelief that Grohl--a drummer, for Chrissakes--had done most of it himself.
But Foo Fighters are now a real band (Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mandel and new drummer Taylor Hawkins). And The Colour and the Shape is their In Utero, the prove-it-again challenge that follows any big breakthrough. Unlike Cobain, however, Grohl seems destined to survive whatever comes his way, be it mixed reviews, tepid sales or the end of his marriage, which crashed and burned between albums.
The Colour and the Shape is supposedly Grohl's "divorce album," but don't expect the white-knuckle ride of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. Grohl doesn't have the patience to stay sad for long, and producer Gil Norton (Pixies) has buffed his can't-help-singing-'em melodies to a bright, mod-rock sheen.
Truth be told, Grohl sounds more comfortable on the power-pop surge of "Monkey Wrench" and light, jazzy breeze of "See You" than the Cobainlike screams he forces on "Enough Space" and "Wind Up." Overall, the band uses Nirvana's sonic formula (soft verse, loud chorus) a little too often--the effect has been cheapened by too much imitation. Considering Grohl's formative background (drummer on the Washington, D.C., hard-core scene), it's disarming how good he is at writing and singing ballads. There's nothing particularly distinctive about the lyrics of "February Stars" or "Walking After You," but Grohl's voice is sweet enough to soften the lingering sting of loss and regret.
The Colour and the Shape won't stand the music industry on its head or inspire a generation of like-minded bands. It's not even the equal of Foo Fighters, though part of what's missing is a sense of surprise. Simply a good album, The Colour and the Shape has some of the same facile appeal of Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You. (Consider Grohl and Salt's Louise Post the newly crowned First Couple of post-alternative pop.)
Though Grohl has never spoken publicly about Cobain's suicide or his relationship with Courtney Love, I always assumed there was meaning buried deep in the noisy bowels of Foo Fighters. Now I'm convinced Grohl is simply an ordinary hero; he'll bleed for his own pain, but damned if he's going to suffer for you, too. In other words, look to Foo Fighters for reliable hooks, but don't expect them to shatter your world or build it up again.
Blue Moon Swamp
John Fogerty hasn't really been heard from in more than a decade, since 1986's Eye of the Zombie--which, in rare form, came merely a year after he released his double-platinum "comeback" Centerfield. In 11 years, he has surfaced with the infrequency afforded rock 'n' roll legends and shut-ins, popping up at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame functions and various benefit concerts. Most of the time, he was disowning his Creedence Clearwater Revival past, refusing to take the antique finery from the china cabinet; sometimes, when feeling generous or forgiving, he'd indulge the fans desperate to hear "Born on the Bayou" or "Proud Mary."
In 1997, the idea of a new John Fogerty recording seems almost anticlimactic; his true legacy lies in the late 1960s and early '70s, when he was among rock's greatest freak brothers--a northern California boy who lived inside Southern country dreams, who nurtured a band in the suburb's garage, then turned it into one of the world's baddest groups. CCR's Green River, Willie and the Poor Boys and Cosmo's Factory rank up there with the first two Band albums and Randy Newman's 12 Songs and Elvis Presley's Sun records as perfect distillations of American music--not merely as rock 'n' roll records, but as statements that transcended generic limitations. Even today, CCR's best records sound like a thousand 1960s Southern AM radio stations heard all at once, and if you need to give that sound a name, it might as well be bluescountrygospelsoulR&Brockabilly. Songs like "It Came Out of the Sky," "Lookin' Out My Back Door" or Fogerty's rearrangement of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" exist now as classic-rock radio fantasias, perfect Top 10 miniature arias created by a man who found in rock 'n' roll a perfect world--one ugly enough to write about every day, but one pretty enough to live in forever.
Fogerty has taken so long between releasing Eye of the Zombie--a rather bleak, bitter album born of nasty lawsuits over "self-plagiarism" and selfish squabbles--and finishing Blue Moon Swamp because, as he is now wont to explain, he didn't want to rush perfection. He struggled to learn dobro because that's what he heard on the song "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade" as he wrote it in his head--not acoustic slide, not pedal steel, but dobro--and far be it from him to hire out for help. He tried out dozens of studio musicians, hiring and firing as his muse dictated; he wrote and rewrote, arranged and rearranged, created and destroyed 'til all that remained was perfection. Such are the obsessions that drive not legends, but the few real rock 'n' roll greats: They must live up to their legacies . . . or disappear trying.
Blue Moon Swamp--created by a man who sounds as though he has spent decades in a vacuum, listening only to the echoes of his own greatness and nothing else--is indeed a capital-P perfect John Fogerty recording. It reverberates with eerie "Born on the Bayou" echoes and throbs with wide-grinned "Centerfield" joy; it sweats Mississippi mud and gulps Kentucky whiskey--but in the end, it merely recalls greatness without quite achieving it. Blue Moon Swamp is a rock 'n' roll recording made behind museum glass.
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Perhaps to play Blue Moon Swamp with the expectations brought on by 11 years of waiting and nearly 30 years of listening is to be set up for disappointment; when "Southern Streamline" kicks off with the insistent "Bad Moon Rising" riff, you're at once thrilled by the familiarity . . . and saddened as well; you traveled down this road long ago, before they built shiny high-rises on top of the swampland. Fogerty has become so much a part of history he can't see the cliches for the hype, and so, to the melody of "California Sun," he writes of driving on "wheels on fire" as he blazes down the desert road in a convertible at midnight; he sings of men sweating in the cotton patch, where it's "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade"; he rides down a "Rattlesnake Highway" on a worn-out blues riff and a half-empty tank of gas; fronting a Farfisa organ and slide gee-tar, he even advises you "take it to the river" down in the "honey-dripping" South, where the mythical Jelly Roll will ease your suffering. And to top it off, Fogerty's voice has itself become a memento, a tattered and yellowing relic bolstered by weird echoes and other inappropriate effects--so much so you barely recognize him through the fog.
Fogerty has become "art-rock," by critic Chuck Eddy's definition--meaning, Eddy writes of Bruce Springsteen in his new The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, "his muse can't be separated from his ego; he's too palpably concerned with how he'll be remembered in the history books." Fogerty has become the history book itself, and history books don't make for perfect rock 'n' roll records.