Essential Classics: Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape

With the release of their eighth studio album Sonic Highways this week, Rust Is Just Right is celebrating with a week devoted to the Foo Fighters.  Today we take a close look at their most beloved album, The Colour and the Shape.

Last week, one of my friends suggested to me that despite its initial popularity, The Colour and the Shape is “criminally under-appreciated today.”  After spending some time contemplating the proposition, I wrote that I agreed with his assessment, while expanding on his point and making some minor modifications.  I think most people would agree that it’s a very good album, but I also believe that a majority of those fans wouldn’t even begin to consider TCATS a “classic” or one of the best albums of the 90’s.

I would contend that there are a few reasons that The Colour and the Shape is not held up in the same regard as other classic albums of the era.  First, the fact that the Foo Fighters are not only a still-functioning band, but have continued to be one of the most successful rock bands of the past two decades, works against them in this case.  This prevents an appropriate distance from the album from being formed, so that we as an audience can stand back and reflect on its merits.  The Foos have churned out a fairly consistent product over time, with good-to-very-good albums released every few years; there hasn’t been a need for fans to ask “hey, when are these guys going to get back to the formula of The Colour and the Shape” or for critics to say with each review “THIS is their best album since TCATS!” as they do with every Pearl Jam release since No Code.  Fans today aren’t rediscovering the bands early work that they missed the first time around like they would with Pavement or the Pixies, as they just get caught up in the normal album cycle; the anticipation that builds up when a band may potentially reunite doesn’t create the same fervor for their early work as a normal album progression does.

And with Dave Grohl’s status as the Unofficial Mascot of Rock, even when the band takes time between album releases, their frontman is never far from the public’s consciousness.  He’s the modern guy that musicians from all eras and genres call up, from living legends to standouts from the underground,* so we’re always hearing about him teaming up with this guy on this record or performing with those guys on that show.  And in an era where there are fewer and fewer rock stars, he’s a consistent source for quotes and interviews–if Gene Simmons says something stupid about the state of rock, you’re damn sure Grohl will have a rebuttal.

This leads into a secondary issue that leads to people underrating The Colour and the Shape, and that it is a mainstream rock record.  It’s not an underground classic waiting to be discovered (most everyone has heard the Big Singles from this album; at the very least “Everlong” was definitely featured at every single one of your middle school dances), so it doesn’t evoke a need in its fans to proclaim its greatness.  Nor is it an album that will blow your mind with its experimental take on different genres or change your attitude as to what actually constitutes “music”, so there is no need to argue with detractors that “They just don’t get it, man.”  I highly doubt that musicians would point to it as a highly influential record, beyond stating that they may have been really big fans; if there’s one takeaway to be had from TCATS, it would probably be that you can have songs with big hooks without being dumb, so maybe it was an inspiration for some in that regard.  But there’s nothing exciting in being a person that cites The Colour and the Shape as a classic, especially as mainstream rock is caught between two competing trends in critical thought–that there is merit to pop music, as long as it isn’t rock, and that the best rock music is the stuff isn’t popular.**  By sticking up for TCATS, you’re begging people to say, “Congratulations, you’re praising a record that went double-platinum and enjoy hearing when it comes on the radio.  Have a cookie.”

Fine, I’ll take that cookie.

The Colour and the Shape is a brilliant guitar album, first and foremost: it’s packed with memorable riffs and great hooks, and guitars dominate the songs from beginning to end, whether they are electric or acoustic.  Fans immediately remember that huge descending riff from “Monkey Wrench”, the delicate strums of “Everlong”, and that killer melody from “My Hero” when reminiscing about the album.  Even the deeper cuts are defined by their guitars, from the arena-rock-ready lines “Hey, Johnny Park!” to the sugary-sweet melody of “Up In Arms”.  But while these parts are so catchy that they sound easy, there’s a greater layer of complexity to these guitar parts than your standard garage-rock/bar-band fare.  The Foos often use unique chords or uncommon voicings, altering your expectations just enough that you can’t predict a progression the first time you hear it but done in a manner that’s not so jarring that it affects your attention.

There is another area which shows the technical expertise of the record when you dig in a little deeper.  The Colour and the Shape is a Drop-D album that doesn’t succumb to the laziness that is often inherent in the technique.  Usually, down-tuning the bottom string invites guitarists to simply crank out a riff and then let the tuning give it a superficial depth, since they can easily turn a single-line melody into a chord by simply pressing one finger over multiple strings (though guitarists deserve credit if they use this convenience to write more intricate riffs than they would otherwise–then Drop-D is used appropriately).  Instead, the band uses that tuning to create bigger-sounding chords, using the entire width of the neck and allowing for more individual voices to be heard and more complex melodic lines within a chord progression, and also to create unique chords in and of themselves, as in “Everlong”.  The progression itself is not particularly complex, but by using the Drop-D it creates a more unusual and novel chord for each step of the phrase.  That means when your roommate picks it out on his acoustic that it is not nearly as impressive as Grohl writing the progression in the first place, but good on roomie for trying to impress the audience with a great song.

The album is known to the masses for its big singles, and rightfully so.  “Monkey Wrench” was a furious introduction as the lead single, and you can instantly connect with the anger and passion of the band’s performance, especially that all-shouted third verse.  “My Hero” with its thunderous and epic intro was the perfect soundtrack to movie climaxes and sporting events, and its simple message of praising the ordinary heroes among us is one we can all recognize.  And of course, there’s the monumental “Everlong”, which remains one of the totemic songs of the past twenty years.  Even stripped down to its barest elements, just a hushed voice and a delicate guitar, one can feel the power of all the emotions associated that come with the experiences of first love, from the anticipation to the anxiety and everything in between (if the acoustic version has one flaw, is that it cuts out the fantastic bridge from the original electric version, but it’s a forgivable omission).  I’m sure someone in the past decade has paired it with My Morning Jacket’s “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2” on a mixtape, and if they haven’t, I want to alert you that you’re missing a golden opportunity.

(I would also like to take a moment to praise the Michel Gondry-directed video, which in addition to being excellent and unforgettable, also is one of the few music videos that extends the song instead of cutting it short, making one wish that the band actually add an extra chorus to the end.)

But the true strength of the album is in its deeper cuts, the songs between the tentpoles that defined the album.  As mentioned above, there’s “Hey, Johnny Park!” with its huge riffs and its gleeful willingness to toss in all sorts of goofy rock tricks, like slides up and down the neck and amusing manipulations (the effect used for the bridge being the most easily identifiable example), and “Up In Arms” with its catchy melody and the way that it inverts the seriousness of its intro by cranking up the volume and repeating everything in double-time.  Then there are other fun tracks throughout that stay fresh after all these years, like the pounding “Wind Up” and “Enough Space” or the gentle bounce of “See You” or the delicate ballad “Walking After You”.  But the true standout that all fans of the album would point to is “February Stars”, a song that should immediately rectify any prior misgivings that one may have had about the term “power ballad”.  It earns its huge final chorus, and the band makes sure not to waste any of it by piling on layers and layers of guitars playing big, thick chords.

It’s not perfect, and I have a few minor quibbles–I’d end “Doll” on the sustained chord instead of resolving it, so as to build tension and use it as a true intro to “Monkey Wrench”, and I’d slide “February Stars” behind “Walking After You”, to provide a more natural trilogy with “Everlong”, creating a better flow between each of the songs as well.  But these trivial issues aside, it’s an otherwise unimpeachable record.  It’s at its base a simple rock record, just a few guys on guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, but it never feels limited by those potential constraints.  And while it may be known for many of its quiet and sweet moments, there is still an edge to the album, and the Foos are never afraid to let loose and crank the distortion up.  In that context, The Colour and the Shape shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere mainstream rock record, but should be praised as a quintessential example of the form.  It’s not merely a good record, but an all-time great album.

*Just consider that Dave Grohl performed in a band with John Paul Jones (Them Crooked Vultures) AND with Paul McCartney, as well as .  He’s the musical equivalent of Kevin Bacon–you’ll connect him with anyone from the past fifty years in less than six steps.

**That’s not to say that we here don’t tend to prefer less-mainstream fare, but instead that just because it’s obscure it doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because it’s popular, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.

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