You Again?: Foreigner, “Can’t Slow Down”

Written by Music, You Again?

Hey, who are those dudes? Believe it or not, it’s the 2009 version of Foreigner — and they’ve got a new album, Can’t Slow Down, that leaves Jeff Giles repeating his now-familiar query: “You Again?”

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I didn’t think anyone could be a more perfect candidate for this series than Dan Fogelberg, but I was wrong. This, folks, is a band that shouldn’t have new music. Hell, even the last Foreigner album was a record out of time and space, and that came out in 1995. By now, these guys should be collecting buffet passes for America’s finer casinos and playing “Hot Blooded” twice a night for politely appreciative crowds of Camaro owners and shut-ins. Maybe a stray new track or two on the compilations that dribble out once or twice a decade, sure…but an entire album of new Foreigner songs? They’re kidding, right?

But wait. Back up a minute, because that ’95 Foreigner record — it was called Mr. Moonlight, stop laughing — was actually really good. And so, God help me, is Can’t Slow Down, the two-CD, one-DVD recession-busting value package that the current version of the band is peddling through a Walmart exclusive.

Let me be clear. I listened to, and loved, more than my fair share of ’80s AOR; if there was a rocker attempting a desperate late-career comeback during the decade, I was there, plunking my money down on the counter at the record store to own the undignified flailings of everyone from Chicago to Heart to Bad Company. I’ve never had any special affection for Foreigner, though; by the time I started collecting music, they were polluting the airwaves with “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which was followed by the even shittier “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” — and the less said about 1991’s Lou Gramm-less Unusual Heat, the better. Many a rock band has crumbled under the weight of platinum records, but Foreigner was unique — no sooner did they achieve mainstream success than Gramm and Jones were at each other’s throats, splitting and reuniting twice after 1990, destroying in the process not only Gramm’s burgeoning solo career, but Foreigner’s too. Of course, they would have been wiped off the map when grunge slouched onto the scene in the early ’90s, but they should have at least been intact, instead of dissolving from one of Atlantic’s crown jewels into a motley crew of hired hands tagging along with Jones on a series of progressively sadder tours.

On the other hand, Foreigner — like a lot of other so-called corporate rock bands — had the advantage of being utterly anonymous; they may have been radio mainstays for decades, but only the most dedicated rock nerd could pick any random member of any random version of Foreigner out of a lineup. Even Lou Gramm, who was one of rock’s most recognizable singers at one time, was always more of a voice than a personality, so even though fans (and the aforementioned rock nerds) might have lamented Gramm’s departure and subsequent reinvention as a Christian rock singer, the wider world didn’t care. Of course, they didn’t care about Foreigner, period, at least not outside of the band’s evergreen greatest hits…which leads us, in a roundabout way, to the marketing genius, or something, behind Can’t Slow Down.

51H7Clp+cUL._SCLZZZZZZZ_As you might recall, this is a double-disc package with a DVD thrown in for good measure — and if you’ve been watching your greybeard AOR acts over the last several years, you’ve probably already guessed that it includes a best-of disc to go along with the new material. Rumor had it that the band would be re-recording its hits, but that’s fortunately not the case; instead, they’ve been remixed (translation: made louder), giving fans one more opportunity to buy “Feels Like the First Time” and “Juke Box Hero.” They aren’t offensive, but they have no reason to exist outside of hopefully tricking a few Walmart shoppers into thinking it’s a value-priced greatest hits collection. You know the songs, and you wouldn’t know these were remixes just by listening to them. There are no surprises.

What is surprising, however, is how thoroughly, mindlessly enjoyable the new stuff is. Seriously, you guys — seriously.

Unlike a lot of older rock bands strongly identified with their ’80s hits, Foreigner never really changed its sound to fit in with the rules of the power ballad era. They added keys and synths to their sound, and had a few ballad hits, but it wasn’t like they reinvented themselves to get on the radio, and it paid off — it’s saying something that people identify “Feels Like the First Time” or “Juke Box Hero” with Foreigner more strongly than “I Want to Know What Love Is.” This artistic integrity (or whatever you want to call it) worked in their favor when they recorded Mr. Moonlight in 1995, and it’s still working for them now: rather than being forced to choose between trying to recreate “that ’80s sound” or awkwardly trying to fit in with more current trends, Foreigner just gets to sound like…Foreigner. And despite the fact that Mick Jones is the only member of the original lineup left standing, Can’t Slow Down really does sound like Foreigner, right down to the extremely, exquisitely Gramm-like vocals of new singer Kelly Hansen.

Chances are, you’re at least a little conflicted about the whole “meet the new vocalist, sounds like the old vocalist” phenomenon with veteran rock bands, and I am too — but in Foreigner’s case, at least, I don’t think it’s a problem. This isn’t to suggest that Gramm brought nothing to the table in Foreigner — in fact, according to Gramm himself, he may have brought even more than anyone thought — but I think the biggest part of the band’s appeal was always the strong meat-and-potatoes streak that ran through its music; all they ever needed was a drummer who could put four on the floor, a bassist who can keep track of root notes, a bluesy belter, and Jones directing the show. That’s exactly what they have with Can’t Slow Down, which is why it’s such a fun throwback. I can’t imagine many situations in which this would be a compliment, but this sounds like the album a parallel universe version of Foreigner might have released after Inside Information.

It sounds like 1989, in a good way — the lyrics are full of fast cars, hot chicks, and tough-but-tender dudes, the drums and guitars have muscle (but not too much), there’s room for a few power ballads, and irony doesn’t exist. Any band from the era that’s looking to recapture its glory days should study Can’t Slow Down for clues, because nothing here sounds self-conscious or forced. It’s just Foreigner sounding like…Foreigner. I wouldn’t have believed it 20 years ago, but that’s a good thing. Put the jiveass Walmart exclusive and hokey NASCAR tie-in out of your mind and turn up “In Pieces” (download). Makes you feel like hitting the open road in a pair of carefully ripped jeans, doesn’t it?

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