Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins got his moment when his original composition, “Cold Day in the Sun”, made the acoustic side of the band’s 2006 album, In Your Honor. “For a drummer, you’re not a bad singer,” jokes Dave Grohl sarcastically after every live performance of the song. He knows full well that his drummer is a secret weapon of a vocalist. But just like Grohl in Nirvana, Hawkins is relegated to a supporting role in Foo Fighters, and “Cold Day” is his “Marigold”. To fully exercise his musical talents, he has to turn to his own projects.
For a time, that outlet was his band the Coattail Riders, which sounded like Queen covering the James Gang. After releasing two records, the band dissolved last year because of scheduling conflicts, and Hawkins struggled to maintain a solo career amidst heavy touring and the all-consuming life of a Foo Fighter. When he did get a spare moment, he’d play cover songs for shits and grins with bassist Wiley Hodgden and guitarist Mick Murphy, who would become his sidemen in The Birds of Satan.
As Hawkins tells it, the band came about in a moment of spontaneity: He had an open week, some songs written, and a voracious urge to make something. So, he called up Hodgden and Murphy, and the trio spent the week at Grohl’s home studio with the old Sound City analog board. Recorded live with minimal overdubs and no pretentions, the resulting album is refreshingly loose and raw as it unabashedly cops classic rock tropes and clichés. It’s the record every kid dreams of making when they’re air-shredding in front of their mirror as AC/DC blares, except these guys have the professional talent to pull it off.
Opener “The Ballad of the Birds of Satan” is the most audacious track on the record, a nine-minute, multi-movement opus that will jar anyone expecting the Coattail Riders. Murphy brings a metal edge to his guitar work and unleashes riff after riff, guiding the songs through spirals of solos before pulling up for snarling chords and verses. Queens of the Stone Age comes to mind, as Hawkins’ voice shares hints of Josh Homme’s falsetto mixed with the rasp of Rod Stewart. He really isn’t a bad singer — a talented one, in fact, carrying the songs with his melodies.
Hawkins has become a much stronger songwriter since the Coattail Riders, too. The songs on those records sometimes blended together, but the hooks on The Birds of Satan stick, giving each song a defining personality. Single “Thanks for the Line” is especially notable, with the relentless punches of Murphy’s chords setting up the catchiest chorus on the album: “You’re goin’ nowhere/ Thanks for the line.” Perhaps most impressive is the band’s ability to employ this pop sensibility in both a hard rock context and on softer, more sensual songs. “Raspberries” is a straight-up tribute to the eponymous band, letting The Birds of Satan momentarily break from the heaviness for some power pop sentimentality, while “Wait Til Tomorrow” is the closest thing to a Foo Fighters song on the album, dour but optimistic; it appropriately features Grohl on the guitar (Pat Smear also makes an appearance on the album, though his contribution is either too discreet or not remarkable enough to be noticed). Only the reggae-influenced “Nothing at All” falls flat, its rhythm an awkward outlier compared to the other tracks.
The lyrics on The Birds of Satan are fairly generic and read like first drafts — simple phrases about bad love, and good love, and the throes in between — but the words are never distractingly bad. Hawkins isn’t reaching for poetic brilliance here. This side project is about having fun, making rock ‘n’ roll, and killing time before the new Foo Fighters album comes out. Nothing more, nothing less.
Essential Tracks: “The Ballad of the Birds of Satan”, “Thanks for the Line”