Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Of Streaming Audio and Fighting Foo
There’s something to be said for audio streams. In the eighties, record labels promoted new album releases with lavish bios printed on heavy stock paper, replete with 8 X 10 glossies and fan lapel buttons. They even sent critics picture discs on occasion. Sometimes, we were even treated to margarita parties and backstage passes.. We loved all that attention, probably a little too much. All the perks and extras made us feel way too special, and diverted our attention away from the core reason any of us there were there in the first place—our devotion to music.

While I’m not knocking the excesses of the eighties (outside of the fact that I’m left with a buttload of promo nonsense, the significance of the moment escaping me 25 years later), I rather like the audio streams the labels often send me now. I know I’m in a bit of a minority among my contemporaries, but the notion that we need a physical object to remind us of the importance the music makes to us strikes me as daft.

Downloaded audio streams force us to focus purely on the music. That’s a good thing, I think. It divorces our opinion from extraneous factors like graphics, microscopic liner notes and lyric sheets, and allows us to concentrate purely on the music. The latest release from Foo Fighters, Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace, is a case in point. I had a graphic of the album art—a bomb presumably descending on a target, and the music—nothing else—no liner notes, no lyric sheet, nothing but the music. In other words, it came as a rock critic’s worst nightmare. It’s like flying blind in a snowstorm in the middle night—no press release reference points to guide me, no fan and pan feedback, nothing but the music and me, mano y mano.

Touted as a more “mature” effort, Echoes reunites Dave Grohl and company with Gil Norton, who produced 1988’s The Color and the Shape, arguably the Foos’ best album. In the decade since that album, the Foo Fighters, or at least, Grohl, managed to stay in the fringes of the spotlight. Even though his band was content to play stadiums and festivals, Grohl worked the talk show circuit to the point I could envision him as Letterman’s successor somewhere down the line. Musically, though, Foo Fighters were doing little beyond last year’s fizzled live acoustic album Skin and Bones.

I was really looking forward to Echoes. I was anticipating a triumphant return to rock and roll. Barring that, I was hoping for a reenergized band. I was expecting. . .something more/

I’ve listened to this album several times, hoping it would grow on me. I’ve scrambled the tracks, played it full blast through Skullcandy headphones, tried it out for ambience, tweaked the balance—in short, tried everything the streaming audio offered. No matter what I tried, it still came out the same—there was nothing here I haven’t heard before.

It’s not that it’s a bad album. Even at its worst, Echoes still rocks more than much of the schlock on the radio. But that’s also the problem with it. It sounds as if it were tailored to stand out in a classic rock radio format. There’s nothing adventurous here—it goes from stadium rock standard fare to acoustic romance to bar band crowd pleasers. Like most of Foo Fighters’ work, it plays to an audience torn between Cheap Trick and Nirvana, filling a low end niche in classic rock.

Echoes isn’t terrible. But it could have been better.