When record labels hold listening sessions for upcoming albums, there are usually speeches by marketing VPs and A&R reps that involve statements like "the first single is already impacting modern-rock radio." These speeches are usually given in lavish conference rooms with large oak tables and elaborate light fixtures. Often there are refreshments.
But when RCA previewed five tracks off the Foo Fighters' much-anticipated double album, In Your Honor (due June 14), there was none of the aforementioned hullabaloo. Just two burned CDs and a VHS cassette.
On the cassette was a seven-minute interview with a very tired Dave Grohl. Sitting in the band's guitar-strewn studio, he stretched his legs, scratched his patchy beard and delivered — in very slow, deliberate pauses — a mission statement, as it were. The Foo Fighters have been a band for almost a decade now, he said, and he wasn't quite sure if they had another record in them. Then he started listening to the tunes he and the band had been writing — enough for two whole albums, one of heavier material and one of "mellow" arrangements — and his whole plan changed.
"When someone comes up to you and asks which Led Zeppelin album they should buy, you should say Physical Graffiti," he said. "And, in 20 years, when your kid comes up to you and asks which Foo Fighters album he or she should buy, I want you to say In Your Honor."
A lofty goal, to say the least, which is probably why Grohl and the rest of the Foos come out reaching for the heavens from minute one of In Your Honor. The opener, from which the album takes its name, kicks in with a huge wall of guitar drones that escalates to a bowel-shaking crescendo while Grohl howls, "Can you hear me?/ Hear me screaming?"
The guitars are positively gigantic, the feedback nearly disorienting, but the whole thing is held together by Taylor Hawkins' massive, machine-gunning drum work. As the song piles on the sonics, Grohl is left yelping, "In your honor/ I will die tonight," and the tune comes crashing to an echoed conclusion ... only to be revived a split second later as a chugging guitar-and-drums freakout that proves Grohl learned a thing or three from his collaborations with Mötorhead's Lemmy Kilmister.
In stark contrast to the album's opening number is the first single, "Best of You," which is closely reminiscent of the Foo milestone "Everlong" (from 1997's The Colour and the Shape.) There are the churning guitars that bassist Nate Mendel imported from Sunny Day Real Estate, and Grohl delivers his lines like the famously late lead singer of some other band he used to be in. But again, the real star is Hawkins, who drums heavy and sloppy in all the right ways, holding things together and letting the colors run when necessary. While not as hard-hitting and precise as Grohl, he's at least become a reasonable facsimile of him.
"Resolve" is the softest number on Honor's heavy disc, with "Strawberry Fields" guitars, washes of chimes and some pretty vocal harmonization thrown in for good measure. It's a ballad, to be sure, but there's also muscular power chords to give it some added oomph. It serves as a nice bridge between the meaty first disc and the mellow second, which features the album's much-discussed guest stars.
Norah Jones lends her breezy vocals to Honor's most pleasant surprise: the jazzy "Virginia Moon." Over a shuffling guitar/drum rhythm straight out of Brazilian legend João Gilberto's playbook, Jones and Grohl coo lines like "Secret fascination/ Whisper a quiet tune" and "Hear me calling you." There's also an impressive, nearly bolero guitar solo thrown in for good measure. It's a tune that carefully treads the line between cheese-ball exotica and really good bossa nova.
That's opposed to the love-is-awesome ballad "Miracle," which features Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on piano. Maybe the rest of the Foos were too in awe of JPJ to lend him any support, but on "Miracle" — which features Grohl singing, "I got my hands on a miracle/ And there ain't no way I'll let you take it away" — there's little more than lightly strummed guitars and string flourishes, and the tune as a whole fails to cover any new ground.
But that's what happens when you go for grandeur. On any double album, there's bound to be a clunker or two. With In Your Honor, Foo Fighters are clearly reaching for the stars ... or at least looking to ride Zeppelin's mystic coattails. As is the case with such epic pursuits, you're going to fall on your face from time to time. The real achievement here is that the Foos manage to look so good while looking they're dusting themselves off.