Thursday, November 20, 2014

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways album review

Sonic Highways is a concept album - maybe not in the traditional narrative sense, but certainly in the thematic sense.  Eight songs, recorded in eight different US cities, with lyrics inspired by each location and local guests joining in as well - and all documented in a TV series, too.

It's not that this is a bad idea, per se.  It's actually a pretty cool idea.  It's just that Dave Grohl never really struck me as a concept album kind of guy.  One of Grohl's most endearing traits is the fact that he is so damn likeable and down to earth - in fact, he's right at the top of my 'rock stars I would love to have a beer with' list, alongside Robb Flynn (Machine Head) and Neil Fallon (Clutch).  And he writes some damn good rock songs.  Not pretentious, or overblown, just damn good rock songs.

In contrast, the concept album tends to be a domain more frequently inhabited by the ego-tripping rock star, and the over-intellectualiser (looking at you, Billy Corgan - especially now you have gone completely next level and have decided to do Inception-style concept albums within concept albums).  But if anyone has earned the right to do something a little bit out of leftfield like this, it's the tireless Grohl.

To be honest, I wouldn't have the faintest idea about American cities and their influence on music, other than Seattle = grunge.  Clearly the Sound City documentary - and jamming with a roster of legends like Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks and others kick-started Grohl on this path, and the classic rock influence is the single most obvious factor in the way the album sounds.

In fact, if you're expecting a traditional Foo Fighters record with big, stadium-sized singles like Best of You and These Days, you're not going to find a great deal of that here.  

Opening track Something From Nothing (Chicago, featuring Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick) is a good example of the overall concept working really well.  It builds gradually from a muted, melancholy guitar intro, throwing in a very funky keyboard line in the middle, and then totally explodes around the 4-minute mark.  It's a genuine case of the Foos trying something a little different and it totally paying off.

The Feast and the Famine (Arlington, feat. Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson of Scream) is another winner.  Grohl played drums for Scream waaaaay back in the day, and also pinched their guitarist Franz Stahl during the Colour and the Shape era.  Anyway, the Foos co-opt the DC hardcore influence (check the "heyyyyy man!" refrain and a very shouty vocal effort from Grohl) to good effect on this energetic number which is a little reminiscent of Monkey Wrench and DOA.  

Congregation (Nashville, feat. Zac Brown) definitely conjures a Nashville vibe, or at least what I imagine a Nashville vibe would be and there's some nice guitar work, although the main refrain gets kinda tedious and the lyrics don't do a lot for me.

What Did I Do? / God As My Witness (Austin, feat. Gary Clark Jr.) is very much a song of two halves - as the name would imply.  The first half evokes memories of The Who thanks to its bright tone, some great singalong vocals, Taylor Hawkins doing a fine job of channeling Keith Moon, and a very rock and roll guitar solo.  The second half drags and largely feels like an extended outro to the track.

Outside (LA, feat. Joe Walsh), another one of the standout tracks, has very much a highway rock vibe with its driving bassline, insistent tempo and clear Tom Petty influence.  The bridge section is a big highlight thanks to some excellent guitar detail layered around the main solo.  

In the Clear (New Orleans, feat. the Preservation Hall Jazz Band) feels like a fairly standard Foo Fighters mid-album filler track that they've attempted to tack some superficial horn parts on to.  It's actually kind of a disappointment - with a full jazz band at their disposal they really could have been a lot more bold, and I'm thinking along the lines of Faith No More's Star A.D. here.

Subterranean (Seattle, feat. Ben Gibbard) is a good track, albeit it doesn't sound particularly Seattle-ish.  It's a grooving mid-tempo number, with layered, intertwining electric and acoustic guitar parts, and a killer bassline from Nate Mendel, but at 6 minutes it's probably a tad too long as it does start to feel repetitive at times.  Mendel is, arguably, the biggest star on Sonic Highways.  There's a lot more space on a lot of the tracks than has traditionally been the case with the Foo's generally tightly crafted rock songs - and this really brings Mendel's counter-melodies to the fore.  

Back to Subterranean though - and seriously, of all the Seattle-based guests they could have picked, they went with a guy from a bland indie outfit?  I'd have loved to hear Jerry Cantrell team up with the band, albeit Cantrell now resides in LA.  But still, what about Mike McCready, Mark Lanegan, Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Duff McKagan, or the vast array of others who would've been a lot more interesting?  OK, rant over.

I Am A River (New York, feat. Tony Visconti and Kristeen Young) is also a bit of an oddity.  Visconti is a legendary producer, but Kristeen Young, uh, who?  There's a big, bright, stadium-sized chorus, but I can't help but compare the "I am a river" lyric with James Hetfield's infamous "I am the table" lyric from the ill-conceived Lulu.  Like Subterranean it also feels a little overly long and the big string-driven climax at the end does't really do it for me.

Overall, Sonic Highways seems like an ambitious idea that comes up a bit short - like an expansion of the Sound City concept that just didn't have quite enough steam to sustain an entire album.  In this case, I wonder if having a documentary run alongside the album production maybe distracted the focus a bit, or maybe demystified the whole process.  

Like most Foos albums, there are certainly some gems on here that will stand the test of time.  However, like many Foos albums there's some stuff on here that is noticeably not as good as the good stuff.  But still, good on them for trying something ambitious and different, and not being content to rest on their laurels.

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