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Album Review: Scout Niblett – It’s Up to Emma [Drag City]

There are more breakup albums out there than can probably be counted at this point, yet the pain and loss of love remains one of the most fascinating topics to explore through music. Artists wouldn’t keep making albums about it if that weren’t the case. Of course writing a breakup album is in itself therapy, a means of dissecting the good and the bad and figuring out just where things went wrong. Scout Niblett appears to know this on her new album It’s Up to Emma, her seventh full length which also turns out to be one of her strongest. Through it’s nine tracks, it traverses the five stages of grief only to come out the other side resilient and empowered once more. Of course it doesn’t necessarily go through those stages in order, which is why the opening track “Gun” is a slow, angry build to a violent end. In a sense it’s about somebody losing their mind over another person’s betrayal, and it’s only emphasized further by distorted, grunge-filtered solo guitar strums and punishing drums. Once we’re dragged into this pit of despair, and essentially following a character that’s difficult to relate to unless you’re a crazy, emotionally unstable person whenever one of your romantic endeavors peters out, there’s the question raised as to why we’d want to take this journey at all. What’s surprising is how this messy relatonship post-mortem slowly changes our perceptions and draws us in despite our reservations. The vulnerability on display via “My Man” sells you this heartbreak by appealing to your empathetic side. This female narrator that Niblett embodies sacrificed everything for this love, and it didn’t work out in the end. We almost want to root for her hopes of rebuilding the failed relationship on “Second Chance Dreams,” but they end up being exactly as the third word of the title suggests. The depression at work in “All Night Long” is harrowing, with pleads to find a way to move past the mental torture of the breakup. The way the guitar and drums interact with one another mirrors those lyrical and vocal cues in such a way that they become the other end of an imaginary conversation.

As It’s Up to Emma spirals towards its inevitable conclusion, “Could This Possibly Be?” comes in like a reality check, pulling us out of this downward spiral to take a step back to better examine exactly why the narrator keeps torturing herself about this guy. It is when she realizes some painful truths about herself that she also finds acceptance on “What Can I Do?”, leading to not necessarily a happy ending to this tumultuous record, but one where there’s a visible light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the plotline and themes explored on this album, it’s fascinating from an overall instrumental perspective as well. If you’re familiar with previous Niblett records then there’s definitely some familiarity in the sparse blues-style approach she uses here, though this being her first record in 10 years without Steve Albini behind the board there’s a little more polish in the arrangements. The guitars don’t always sound completely scuzzed up, but do retain a certain early ’90s flavor that makes them comparable to that of Cat Power, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Nirvana (Unplugged) and Sonic Youth. This is a record that uses silence as a weapon too. Because the narrator is a woman left all alone with her own thoughts and memories of this past relationship, most songs primarily feature a single strummed guitar and vocals, almost definitely performed by Niblett live inside an empty studio. There’s greater power and emotional depth in such an approach, which is practically a requirement here, and the occasional aggressive drums or string section serve only as accoutrements to try and heighten what’s already there. The combination of all these various factors and elements really help make It’s Up to Emma one of Niblett’s most powerful and accessible records to date. Go ahead and put another great breakup album on the big board.

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Album Review: Foo Fighters – Wasting Light [RCA]

Let’s get this out of the way as fast as possible, because if you’ve not already heard about it, you’re going to hear about it ad nauseum for the next several months if you at all pay attention to the Foo Fighters. The stars are lining up for the band on their seventh long player “Wasting Light”, and if you’re nostalgic for the days of grunge or just the earliest of Foo records, this one’s supposed to be for you. Butch Vig, the uber-rock producer that made his name by sitting behind the boards for one of the greatest albums of all time, Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, teams up with Dave Grohl and company once again. That “company” additionally includes a guest appearance from former Nirvana guitarist Krist Noveselic and the full time return of guitarist Pat Smear to the fold (also a former member of Nirvana). The great Bob Mould of Husker Du and Sugar fame also contributes to the record, which was recorded in Dave Grohl’s garage using old school analog tape. All of these things should have you thinking of the 90s, because there’s little to nothing modern about how “Wasting Light” came together. Considering this year marks the 16th anniversary of the Foo Fighters, the band feels that now might be a good time to reflect on their past. Topping it all off is a documentary called “Back and Forth” that chronicles their wild history of touring places, rocking faces and destroying good graces. Wrap all these details up, put them in a box and throw a bow on it, because if you’re a Foo Fighters fan, this record is for you.

How much do you honestly recall about the last couple Foo Fighters albums? “The Pretender” was arguably their best single in awhile, off their last album “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace”, which aside from that song was one of the worst Foo records ever. Not counting the live and unplugged retrospective “Skin and Bones”, 2005’s double album “In Your Honor” tried to split off the band’s personality into two halves, one of which was the hard charging stadium rock band and the other being a group of soft spoken guys with a penchant for quiet ballads. Actually a better way to think of it is that since their self-titled debut in 1995, Foo Fighters have gotten progressively worse. While their popularity hasn’t waned much if at all, a fair amount of that support has been earned from a number of factors including the ability to crank out halfway decent singles, continued support on radio for their “classic” songs, and a highly dynamic live show. Others have theorized that much of the band’s power lies inside of Dave Grohl himself, and that his beard and oft-jovial sense of humor are key things that have kept them afloat for so long. Whatever it is, a large group of hardcore fans are always excited to hear about a new Foo record, in particular since “Wasting Light” is their first new one in four years.

It’s only appropriate that “Wasting Light” should start with a track called “Bridge Burning”, as if the Foo Fighters are admitting they’ve destroyed a lot of relationships with their fans by turning out a lot of crap the last 10 years. Of course that’s not REALLY what they’re saying, but it could be interpreted that way. Instead, with some machine gun percussion and killer power chords, Grohl comes out of the gate spitting fire. “These are my famous last WOOOORDS/My number’s up, bridges will BUUUUUURN!”, he screams in the most visceral way possible. Somewhere in the first verse he also makes mention of the “king of second chances”, and by the time the addictive and hard-hitting chorus comes around a second time, you pretty much want to give the guy exactly that. Of course if we’ve learned one thing from the past couple Foo Fighters albums, it’s to never get too invested too early because they really like to front-load things. First single “Rope” comes next and continues to hold strong with that sharp as nails guitar attack and a chorus that’ll stick with you. Funny once again are the number of lyrical parallels to the band being in peril and needing fans to throw them a rope to save them. Again, that’s not the genuine meaning, but interpretation should be 9/10ths of the law. Because they can’t all be super high energy stadium rockers, “Dear Rosemary” tapers off that pace just a little, coming in as a head-bopping mid-tempo catch-all with Bob Mould popping up in a support role. Mould’s call-and-response portion of the song with Grohl marks one of the best parts of the track, which legitimately sounds like something Husker Du might put out, with a structure that’s interestingly similar to The Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes”. At this point, Foo fighters haven’t strung together three songs this strong since the start of 1999’s “There Is Nothing Left to Lose”, and with it brings a cautious layer of optimism that maybe this whole “returning to their roots” thing isn’t entirely bullshit.

If you’ve seen the official music video for the track “White Limo”, in which Lemmy from Motorhead drives the band around in the titular vehicle, then you know what a kinetic scream-fest it is. Throw some megaphone-like filter on Grohl’s voice and stir the mosh pit to a frenzy, because this might be the most aggressive and metal thing Foo Fighters have ever done. It’d be more expected as part of one of Grohl’s side projects Probot or Them Crooked Vultures, but it’s a whole lot of fun as part of “Wasting Light”. The streak of excellence has to stop somewhere though, and “Arlandria” is where the quality shows a noticeable dip. Listen to enough Foo Fighters songs, particularly from the last two albums, and you definitely notice the difference between what’s vital and what’s pedestrian. “Arlandria” is in the latter category, despite its energy and quiet-loud dynamic. The same could be said about “These Days”, notable for the way it plays things off like a ballad but still features an explosive chorus that’s clearly intended to power up the weaker sauce everyplace else. That was a trick employed a number of times on “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace”, and we know full well it didn’t work then either. It may not carry the same punch as the first handful of tracks, but “Back & Forth” does make the most of the very little actually going on in it. “Now show a little backbone why don’t you”, Grohl growls just before striking up a pleasantly strident chorus filtered with engaging harmonies. Well, the band was showing some backbone, but they seem quick to self-sabotage and fall back into old patterns on a whim. What makes “A Matter of Time” one of the more important tracks on the record is how it both spits in the face of convention yet simultaneously embraces it. Yeah, that strident and catchy chorus still hits over and over again until you submit to it, but initially getting there and in between the bag gets far more mixed thanks to some extended verses and general false alarms. It’s not revolutionary by any means, but it is more complicated compared to the other parts of the band’s catalogue.

After the hard-hitting first part of “Wasting Light” and the mixed bag in the middle, the good news is that the tail end of the record brings things around full circle and offers something of a redemption to the band. “I Should Have Known” is the Krist Noveselic guesting track, and it’s about the closest thing you’ll get to a full ballad on the entire record. Given that it’s a song about the sudden death of a friend and with all the Nirvana connections, it’d be easy to assume the track is about Kurt Cobain. Grohl said that when he was writing the song Kurt didn’t really enter his mind until much later in the process, because he intended it as a tribute to another friend of his. That friend, a former roadie for Foo Fighters, died of a drug overdose. That doesn’t make the track any less meaningful or sad, and the lyrics can apply to just about anyone that has lost a close friend. The grand, sweeping strings do tend to recall some of the more obtuse, grandiose stuff on the last couple Foo albums, but they’re used in a much more subtle manner this time, which helps in just the right ways. For a finale, you can’t get a much more perfect song than “Walk”. The way the end of the record is structured is reminiscent of a movie plot wherein the main character nobly sacrifices himself for the greater good. The hero dies and leaves everyone torn to pieces, but once his death has passed, there is a peace and sunshine across the land. The future has never looked brighter now that the conflict has been resolved, and so we can “learn to walk again” as the lyrics suggest. Not only that, but Grohl is so ecstatic about life, that he screams, “I’m on my knees/I never wanna die/I’m dancin’ on my grave/I’m runnin through the fire/forever, whatever, I never wanna die” with such passion that you can’t help but believe him. This is triumph. This is the fist-pumping anthem that leaves you feeling like a million bucks. This record ends not with a whimper, but with a legitimate BANG.

By and large, 2011 is probably going to be remembered as the year rock made a serious comeback. Not only is the crop of new indie artists trying good and hard to revive the boom of the 90s, but the mainstream is embracing such notions as well. Foo Fighters are currently in the right position at the right time, and their new record “Wasting Light” is just the sort of kick in the teeth this resurgence needs. There are multiple ways to look at this though, and not all of them feature rose-colored glasses. One easy argument is that this record is an act of desperation, with Foo Fighters calling in favors and “the big guns” to help restore a flailing career. The antithesis to that point suggests that maybe the band cares less about churning out quality records so long as the stadiums stay filled and the merchandise keeps selling. Neither of those points is likely correct. In what’s truth but could be bad or good depending on your viewpoint, “Wasting Light” is not really anything new from the Foo Fighters. They’ve had the same sound and been turning out virtually the same record since the very beginning. Yeah, you know a Foo Fighters song when you hear it, and it’d be equally nice to hear them try and go completely off grid experimental, but that’s sort of what side projects are for. Additionally, the band probably considered their acoustic adventures and their symphony-heavy songs on more recent albums to be “experimental” no matter how commonplace they might otherwise seem to you and me. Listen to a record like “The Colour and the Shape” and then “Wasting Light” and it’s simple to point out the hard-driving guitars and massive choruses are cut from the same cloth. For those of us that regard those early Foo records as their classics and most vital though, in so many respects this is the first time in a long time that the band sounds like they want to recapture that spark they lost 10 or more years ago. This is by no means a perfect record, especially with the sagging middle portion, but it’s not completely off-base to put it in the same category with those first three essentials. And so, marketing ploy or not, desperate attempt to regain favor or not, “Wasting Light” still deserves your time, attention and maybe a few of your hard-earned dollars. Just remember to exercise your rock hand before turning this thing up, because you’ll get cramps if you hold up those devil horns for too long.

Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

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