Saturday, March 26, 2016
Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
In many ways, Sonic Highways is actually Foo Fighters’ most ambitious and most album-focused project yet. At eight tracks and 43 minutes, it’s the band’s leanest and most to-the-point set of songs ever. It also has arguably the most interesting concept. Where Wasting Light was all about the band finding their way back to the loud and loose sound that had inspired them at the beginning, Sonic Highways is about finding new avenues for their sound. That much will already be obvious to those who have tuned into the HBO TV series of the same name, which sees frontman Dave Grohl essentially becoming a musical anthropologist. In the TV show, Grohl visits eight different cities throughout the United States and explores the musical history and heritage of each. The album is based around this city concept, too, with each of the eight songs recorded in one of the eight cities featured on the show (and with local musicians from each city sitting in on the recording sessions).
Regardless of your opinion on the Foo Fighters—and there are plenty of people who write the band off, either as generic radio rock or as “dad rock” (the single worst pejorative in music criticism)—it’s hard to deny that the idea behind Sonic Highways is pretty cool. It’s especially welcome coming after a record that, while solid, wasn’t particularly innovative or versatile. Where Wasting Light saw Dave Grohl and co. going backwards and trying to make an album that sounded like their most beloved classic, The Colour and the Shape, the idea behind Sonic Highways seemed to promise a new and exciting chapter for the band. Before any of us even heard a note, we were wondering about the ways in which culturally rich cities like Nashville and Seattle would influence the band’s core meat-and-potatoes sound.
Not as much as we all might have hoped, apparently.
While Sonic Highways is undoubtedly a different direction than Wasting Light, it is still very much a Foo Fighters album. That’s not a bad thing, since it means we get plenty of big, bold guitar anthems and full-throated hooks. However, if you were hoping that the Foos’ pilgrimages to eight of America’s most musical cities would bring about a grand departure or evolution for the band, there’s a good chance you will be disappointed with your earliest listens to Sonic Highways.
To be fair, the Foo Fighters do decide to do a handful of things differently throughout these eight songs. First single and leadoff track, “Something from Nothing,” employs one of the band’s most patient and gradual builds ever. Some listeners have taken this change of pace as a sign that the song is “boring,” though it’s anything but. A menacing pendulum of guitar notes starts the song in balladic territory, but it doesn’t stay there. Instead, it escalates with each minute, gaining speed, volume, and tempo as it rolls uncontrollably forward. It’s a kinetic ball of energy and the perfect opening track, somehow hitting everything from a funky synth line to a speed guitar solo without ever missing a beat. Recording in Chicago and evidently taking inspiration from local legends like the Smashing Pumpkins, “Something From Nothing” is a teaser that shows what this album’s rock ‘n’ roll road trip could be.
Unfortunately, not all of the songs here sound as much like their cities as “Nothing” does. “The Feast and the Famine” supposedly drew influence from Washington D.C.’s hardcore and punk scene, but it ends up sounding like every other garage rocker from Wasting Light. “Congregation” meanwhile, is the album’s biggest mixed bag. Whether it’s because I recently visited Nashville or because I’ve been especially steeped in Americana music for the past few years, I was looking forward to this track more than any of the others. The Foo Fighters have gone country before—mostly on non-album tracks like “Seda” (an outstanding ramblin’ man b-side from Echoes) or “Wheels” (the heartland rocker written specifically for the band’s 2009 Greatest Hits collection)—and those forays have always provided an exciting twist on the band’s usual sound.
“Congregation,” though, feels only passively linked to Nashville. The song mostly foregoes any sense of twang for organ-fueled southern rock. The result is arguably the set’s catchiest song, while some backwoods guitar noodling from country star Zac Brown makes for one of the cooler guest features. Still, the song ends up sounding a lot more like Counting Crows circa Recovering the Satellites than it does like anything you would hear drifting out of the many famous honky tonk bars on Nashville’s famous Broadway. In that sense, “Congregation” feels like a missed opportunity. There is arguably no city in America with a more infectious musical culture than Nashville, and it feels like the Foos could have taken that inspiration to build one of their best and most unique songs ever. Instead, they fill “Congregation” with blatantly unsubtle lyrical references to the legendary Bluebird Café, or to the ghosts that supposedly haunt Nashville’s streets and music venues. It’s still an enjoyable number, but it leaves a want for more.
“More,” unfortunately, is something that listeners will likely beg of many songs on this set—not because they aren’t enjoyable, but because they don’t quite live up to their potential. “What Did I Do/God As My Witness” for example, is a dynamic shape-shifter that thrives in spite of some ham-fisted lyrics (come on Dave, you’re better than “This one's for you to know and me to find out”). However, the song, recorded in Austin, Texas, doesn’t make nearly enough use of its guest star: electric guitar maestro Gary Clark Jr. Clark put out a great record a few years ago, full of bluesy jams and throwback rockers. Here, he gets to contribute an incendiary guitar solo that honestly sounds like it was improvised on the spot (in the best way possible), but his soulful voice and his mastery of blues, R&B, and Chuck Berry-style rock ‘n’ roll could have been used to give the song a bit more flavor.
The same goes for Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, who pops up on the Seattle song (“Subterranean”), or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who join the Foos in New Orleans for “In the Clear.” Gibbard provides barely-audible backing vocals on the menacing “Subterranean,” which sounds more like post-millennial R.E.M. than anything from Seattle. The members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, meanwhile, are the album’s most underused guests, providing horn blasts to the otherwise standard-issue Foo anthem, “In the Clear.” With the horns higher in the mix, or with a little bit of jazzy, Waits-like swagger, the song could have been exceptional. I would have been particularly interested in hearing an E Street-like arrangement of a Foo Fighters song. But ultimately, we get something a bit blander.
“In the Clear” especially highlights the fact that producer Butch Vig might not have been the best person to man the boards for Sonic Highways. Vig produces big rock albums like Wasting Light, or like Jimmy Eat World’s Chase This Light and Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown. He’s a skilled producer, but his compressed arena rock sound is not necessarily the best fit for an album such as this. Gil Norton, who helped the band tap into a classic Paul McCartney vibe on Echoes, might have been a better choice. Or Nick Raskulinecz, who did such a great job of blending the Foos’ sound with the talents of guest players like Rami Jaffee, John Paul Jones, Josh Homme, Petra Haden, and Norah Jones on the acoustic disc of In Your Honor. Heck, it might have been even cooler if the Foo Fighters had brought in a different producer from each city to help them with Sonic Highways. I’m not usually a fan of having too many cooks in the kitchen, production-wise, but I think it might have suited this project well.
Of course, when Vig does hit the mark, he strikes it right in the bull’s eye. One example is “Outside,” which perfectly melds the Foo Fighters sound with a SoCal aesthetic. Recorded in Los Angeles and featuring Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, “Outside” is arguably this record’s most unique and geographically distinctive piece. Album closer “I Am a River,” meanwhile, couldn’t have been produced any other way. An overblown classic rock anthem in every sense—from the lengthy guitar/keyboard intro to the sweeping string arrangements at the end—“I Am a River” is the Foos kicking into larger-than-life Oasis territory. The album’s New York song, “River” is also one of the project’s best, bearing a similar feeling of uplift and shout-along urgency that “Walk” used to end Wasting Light. Expect it as the set closer on the upcoming Foo Fighters world tour.
Ultimately, Sonic Highways is kind of a confusing album. It’s neither the best Foo Fighters release, nor the weakest. I personally think it’s more interesting than Wasting Light, but many hold that album in high esteem and would disagree. I also think it could have used a bit more of the organic feel that drove Echoes, or the acoustic parts of In Your Honor, but considering how many Foos fans dismiss those albums, I’m probably in the minority on that, too. Featuring none of the best Foo Fighters songs and no obvious singles, Sonic Highways could be destined to become a forgotten black sheep in the band’s catalog. Or it could be viewed as the record where they finally stopped being a singles band and gained recognition for the cohesion they’ve been striving for since Grohl decided he disliked 2002’s One by One. (I also dislike One by One.) All told, it’s a solid record with no glaring weak points (a first for the Foo Fighters) and with some of the band’s more rewarding and adventurous songwriting. I just wish that, given the anthropological nature of the Sonic Highways TV show, the record of the same name could have a bit more anthropological itself.