It’s been a weird year for the Foo Fighters. What should have been an explosive 20th anniversary celebration essentially boiled down into the Broken Leg Tour. From atop a Game of Thrones-esque guitar throne, band leader Dave Grohl led his outfit each night through two hours of rawk ‘n’ roll, complete with hits and surprise guests galore. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but to their credit, they made sugary strawberry lemonade out of fading lemons. Still, watching Grohl relegated to a chair each night was like watching a lion locked away in a Brooklyn apartment. He tried his darndest to claw his way out, but there was no escaping the shitty situation.
Much of that rage and passion fuels the band’s new Saint Cecilia EP. Recorded amidst this year’s Austin City Limits Festival at Hotel Saint Cecilia, a boutique getaway in the city’s South Congress District, the five songs reek of the breezy creativity that coalesces when a shitload of like-minded people come together to drink and collaborate — and that’s exactly what happened. As Grohl wrote in the EP’s introduction, “Margaritas were made, friends came to visit, the sun went down, and before long we started making enough noise to drive the neighbors to start drinking along with us.”
What’s strange is that this was partly the conceit of last year’s Sonic Highways, arguably their weakest effort to date. The accompanying documentary series on HBO proved intriguing — in which the band visited eight studios in eight major music metropolises — but the album itself predictably warranted a lackluster collection of showy, forgettable, wannabe anthems that spoke to the gluttonous, gimmicky habits that have plagued Grohl & co. since 2013’s guest-heavy, substance-light documentary/album, Sound City. Really, everything since has been like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 12: fun to make, a chore to experience.
But Saint Cecilia feels like a new turn, or rather, a much-needed step back. It’s simple, back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll that reaches for the heart and not the last fan in the back of the crowd. Revisiting the past, Foo Fighters have always been at their best when they don’t overthink things and just be themselves — it’s why Grohl’s 1995 debut will forever be the band’s watermark, and why 2011’s Wasting Light managed to be such a late-career gem. That’s not to say that this EP checks into that upper echelon of Foo Fighters accomplishments, but it’s certainly cut from the same cloth. There’s an energy to these songs that feels very nostalgic.
That’s probably because they’re actually older songs. Even though “riffs and ideas were thrown around,” Grohl admitted that they “were going through decades of songs no has ever heard, pieces left on the cutting room floor from every album.” He aptly calls this collection a “sonic scrapbook” (though, thankfully he didn’t actually call the EP that). But does it really matter if “The Neverending Sigh” is from 1995? Isn’t that the same thing Radiohead did for In Rainbows? Hell, isn’t that what Grohl did for the original Foo album? How many times has he revisited Pocketwatch for songs? It’s a smart idea.
Context aside, the best that can be said of these five songs is that they’re actually memorable. Foo Fighters work with a tired genre that can easily be rote in the wrong hands. (Actually, go to your local bar, and you’ll see that rock ‘n’ roll is rote in the majority of people’s hands.) What separated the band from the modern muck is their uncanny ability to weld hooks and melody, something nonexistent on Sonic Highways. (Okay, I’m done bashing it. I swear.) Well, all of that’s gone from track one: “Saint Cecilia” shatters the proverbial cast and shrugs off the last few years with stony assurance and a youthful grin.
“I know, no matter what I say, days will come and go, no matter what I say,” Grohl pines as he surfs on drummer Taylor Hawkins’ hi-hat. Listen close enough and you’ll hear about three to four hooks going on at once. The doubled Grohl harmonies could be construed as overkill, but it’s driving too fast to sound any alarms. That speed doesn’t let up, either, as both “Sean” and “Savior Breath” add a little steel to the feet. The former would be at home on One by One, a polarizing album which this critic will go to bat for any day, while the latter could hit the ring with “White Limo”. This is why they have three guitarists.
“Iron Rooster” is the weakest track off the collection, a lengthy, meditative stroll that’s been slotted around a lake of fire, and one that we’ve heard way too many times before. Fortunately for the EP, they close out things with the aforementioned “Neverending Sigh”, a mountain of riffs and distortion that digs into the band’s love of ’70s rock, thanks to belt-buckle guitar solos and some snazzy production that traps Grohl’s vocals into an echo chamber. This will undoubtedly be an essential set closer — well, at least before they come out and play the expected “Everlong” or “Best of You”. But that’s another debate.
Or is it? Perhaps the Saint Cecilia EP can be a lesson to the band going forward. That less is more, that you can trust the past, that you don’t need lame gimmicks to make an album, that music ever really only needs to boil down to a moment. Foo Fighters are the biggest rock band in the world because of those moments. They’re survivors of a forgotten genre because of their ability to keep making those moments happen. As Grohl is wont to say, who knows how long it’ll last. Right now? Well, it’s just nice to see him walking again.
Essential Tracks: “Saint Cecilia”, “Savior Breath”