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By John Brodeur

Foo Fighters

In Your Honor (Roswell/RCA)

Dave Grohl has something to prove. He’s already outlasted—and, to some extent, outwritten—his former band (yeah, those guys), but here he is, 10 years into a hugely successful career as lead Foo Fighter, and he and his band have delivered what they’d like to consider to be their manifesto. Grohl’s gone so far as to call In Your Honor—the Foo Fighters’ new double-album—his band’s Physical Graffiti. So does it stand up?

Let’s say this: It takes balls to release a double album. Big ones. It’s so rarely done well that it’s a wonder anyone still tries to pull it off. So in comparison to Physical Graffiti—one of the few truly great double discs—In Your Honor comes up short. It is the band’s best record since the exceptional The Colour and the Shape, however; had it been pared down to 14 or 15 tracks (I’d do it for them if asked), it could very well have reached loftier heights.

The main problem lies in the structure. In Your Honor is broken up by dynamics: One disc is “loud,” the other “not so loud.” Unfortunately, the hard division makes the band sound like two separate, less-interesting groups. The first disc opens strong with the pleading title track, on which Grohl cries “Can you hear me?” with a polyp-inducing scream. (Yes, Dave, we hear you just fine.) “No Way Back” is a muscular power-pop tune, reminiscent of the earlier “Monkey Wrench,” and “Best of You” is the band’s best single since “Everlong”—that’s saying a lot for an act who routinely deliver concrete-bunker-strong singles.

>From there, they keep it hard and heavy—perhaps a little too heavy. The volume and tempo are cranked until the eighth track (“Resolve,” another highlight), and the disc is bookended with some of the group’s strongest material to date (“End Over End” is classic Foo). This slights a few songs (“Free Me,” “The Last Song”) that, under other circumstances, would be standouts. That said, disc one makes for a strong rock record, if not a particularly varietal one.

The second disc, if offered by any other band, might have been a head-turner. It’s got some truly pretty moments—“What If I Do” and “Miracle” in particular—but its sleepy (by design) tone grows tiresome at length. The band must have known this would happen, hence the spate of guest performers (John Paul Jones, Petra Haden, Josh Homme, Norah Jones, and the band’s guitar tech and photographer, among others) enlisted to spice things up.

Again, though, it’s all too much. At times, the set recalls Alice In Chains’ Jar of Flies and Sap EPs, especially on the moody one-two of “Over and Out” and “On the Mend.” However, the water-treading “Still” and the way-out-of-place “Cold Day in the Sun” (featuring a decent vocal turn from drummer Taylor Hawkins) proves why those sets weren’t extended to album length. The overall effect of In Your Honor is that of a sprinter trying to run a 10K: It’s good in spurts, but can’t hold it together for distance.

Or, to put it in Grohl’s own terms, it’s no Physical Graffiti, but there’s at least a Zeppelin III in there.

Various Artists

Caffe Lena Historic Stages, Vol. I

Such is the fame of Saratoga’s Caffe Lena that when I taught guitar there one summer, I often found myself welcoming tourists who had dropped by to see the stage where Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Arlo Guthrie and other folk greats (as well as lesser-known pickers such as myself) have performed. Showing them the place was an honor.

With full disclosure made, I can say the Caffe has released a well-chosen compilation of 16 live performances by several of the venue’s marquee artists recorded there and at other locations from 1972 to 2000. Historic Stages, Vol. I represents what concertgoers at the landmark coffeehouse have been hearing since 1960: engaging contemporary acoustic songs, offerings from many folk traditions, and fine playing. As the Caffe’s only previous anthology, the 1972 Welcome to Caffe Lena (Biograph), is out of print, the present CD is long overdue.

The disc opens with two tracks from the 1972 LP. Lena Spencer, the club’s owner and impresario (she died in 1989 at age 66), introduces veteran songster and multi-instrumentalist Michael Cooney to the audience, after which Cooney launches into a reworked version of “Hannah” by Chris Bouchillion titled “Lena Won’t You Open Your Door.” Cooney’s voice strains on one or two high notes, but his bluesy fingerstyle guitar chops and showmanship are on the money as he hams it up for an audibly delighted crowd. U. Utah Phillips prefaces the next song, the whimsical “Daddy, What’s a Train,” with the sort of short, relaxed monologue that is a staple of coffeehouse performers but rarely makes its way onto records.

Other gems abound. Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Group deliver a stunning a cappella rendition of the traditional gospel quartet number “If You Love Me, Feed My Sheep,” seamlessly pulling off ascending half-step key changes. Bluegrass banjo ace Tony Trischka picks a sparkling original solo composition, “Garlic and Sapphires,” traveling well beyond the usual harmonic borders of the 5-string. And humorist Christine Lavin sends up a hilarious ditty, Harrison Ford, about a fleeting encounter she had with the actor and his wife in a Wyoming restaurant.

The mood gets serious soon thereafter, though. Patty Larkin’s “Metal Drums” is a taut protest song about some children poisoned by industrial pollution after playing in a toxic waste site in Massachusetts that is perhaps the high point of the record. And Gamble Rogers, who died heroically in 1991 attempting to rescue a drowning man in rough surf in Florida, is remembered with a pair of songs: “That’s All,” an artfully fingerpicked Merle Travis tune is from what was to be his last concert. “Song for Gamble,” written and performed by Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, honors Rogers and his sacrifice.

Lastly, Pete Seeger, joined onstage at the nearby Canfield Casino in 1985 by a chorus of hundreds of Lena’s friends and well-wishers, salutes the folk maven on her 25 years of presenting music with the serene “Somos El Barco (We Are the Boat).”

Historic Stages is a worthy encomium to the Caffe and its troubadours, and the good souls there who have kept Lena’s legacy alive.

—Glenn Weiser

Meredith Bragg & the Terminals

Vol. 1 (Kora Records)

Meredith Bragg & the Terminals play pop music that has a folkish bearing, but is decidedly not folk music. There’s a subtle intricacy and orchestral sensibility that is at the core of Bragg’s 11 songs. Acoustic-based, the music has a quiet insistency, made all the more compelling by the luscious timbres of the instruments employed: acoustic guitar, cello, keyboards and gentle percussives. The disc clocks in at 37 minutes, short by CD-saturation standards, but just right for the emotionally direct circumstances put forth in the songs. The centerpiece is the set’s longest number, the seven-and-a-half minute “I Won’t Let You Down.” Moving at a stately pace, it picks up momentum without picking up speed, as the urgency of the lyric’s promise is matched by the swirling arrangement of the quartet. In particular, the cello offers a potent and mournful counterpoint voice to Bragg’s unaffected everyman vocals.

The beautiful letterpress package mirrors the pre-technological-era resonance of the music within. Recording, manufacturing and playing the compact disc would not be possible without electricity, but this is the sound of a living room sparkling with a chamber ensemble warmed by the embers of a winter stove. Bragg and his cohorts sound contemporary, at the same time eschewing the trappings of modernist dictates, going for the timelessness of human scale, rhythms and emotions.

—David Greenberger

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