Tuesday, November 11, 2014

album review: 'sonic highways' by foo fighters

You know, for as big of an act as the Foo Fighters are, I don't think I've ever, in public or private, really given a comprehensive opinion about the band. I've talked at length about many of their contemporaries, some great and some awful, but I haven't really talked about Dave Grohl's post-grunge turned arena rock band in, well, ever. I think it's time I rectify that.

So, the Foo Fighters are, for me, a defining example of a pretty damn good band. Not a great one, not an all-time classic act, and it'll definitely be interesting to see how long their historical legacy lasts in comparison with their peers, but a pretty damn good rock band. There's a lot of common opinions about the Foo Fighters as well - their best material was in the late 90s, they really are more of a singles act over structuring cohesive albums, and a lot of their material sounds the same. Having revisited the entire Foo Fighters discography... well, they're not wrong, although Wasting Light was a solid step to reinvigorate the band. But tapping into the reasons why gets trickier. For one, as potent of a frontman as Dave Grohl is, some of his more serious, hyper-earnest, 'we're the last real band in rock' self-aggrandizing gets exasperating - and the sad fact is with the decline of hard rock in the mainstream, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. But on the other hand, earnestness is one of the Foo Fighters' greatest strengths - you believe Grohl when he's howling or singing, and the band's knack for a melodic hook has kept them a steady draw for years. On the flip side... okay, lyricism has never been their strong point, and many, many songs fall into easy cliche and feel more broadly sketched than they really should. But once again, there's another side to this, as broadness can work well in the fist-pumping anthems the Foo Fighters can make like clockwork.

So you can bet I was intrigued by their newest album Sonic Highways, reportedly recorded in eight different American studios in order to capture the unique musical vibe of each city. And not only that, with each song they brought on guests to enhance the roots-driven sound, from Joe Walsh to Ben Gibbard to Zac Brown, the last of which was the biggest draw for me being a massive Zac Brown Band fan. On the other hand, I also know the Foo Fighters - we weren't likely to see Little Big Town levels of experimentation on this record, and at the end of the day they'd still probably sound like the Foo Fighters. 

And turns out, I was pretty much right on the money there, because Sonic Highways by The Foo Fighters sounds a lot like what I was expecting. And the more I've listened to this album, the more I've realized that expectations surrounding this album plays a lot into how many people are responding to this record. If you're going in expecting broader experimentation or for Dave Grohl to make his statement on American culture driven by each of the eight cities he recorded in, you're going to be disappointed, and if you're going in expecting the Foo Fighters to recreate their more personal 90s output, you're going to be disappointed as well. It makes Sonic Highways fall into a really weird place as a record - an album that has the ambition to draw together bigger statements, but the execution of such statements feels a little flat and almost calculated. It's an album that's trying at many moments to feel grandiose and have all of this flavour - but at the end of the day, it's the Foo Fighters, and a lot of their material sounds alike, even here.

I should explain, and let's get the easy parts out of the way - if you've heard a Foo Fighters record, Sonic Highways is very similar: propulsive drumming, crunchy guitar work, plenty of snarl and distortion around the edges, and Dave Grohl continuously proving he's got one of the best and most versatile voices in modern rock. And it's such a well-established template and sound that most of the collaborating acts can feel a little tacked on, not really contributing the same amount of texture and flair unless you really listen for it. Now that's not saying there aren't killer moments - I dug the hard punk edge of 'The Feast And The Famine' that probably comes across as the most fully realized thanks to Grohl's long-standing love of punk and the collaboration with Bad Brains, I liked the brief moments of organ and solid finger-picking of Zac Brown on 'Congregation' that comes close to country rock, I loved the explosive guitar work of Gary Clark Jr. and the change up on 'What Did I Do'/'God As My Witness', and the spacier sound and simple but effective guitar melody on 'I Am A River' really proved surprisingly gripping. Hell, I even mostly liked 'Subterranean' because it sounds exactly like a Ben Gibbard/Foo Fighters collaboration would sound like and it was a pretty solid song, the acoustic texture resting against the electric background that tempered the harsher elements.

But here's where the first misfire is - for as much as this album touts its guest list, they are fused so tightly into the mix that a lot of their unique textures fall away, especially considering that Grohl chose them as representative of their specific music scene. Most of this is an issue of production, as it feels more of the guest guitar textures are nestled halfway in the back of the mix, and with The Foo Fighters not holding back their explosive power, you lose the contributing flavour - it's like a shot of Bailey's, it overshadows everything else. And that's a damn shame, because I wanted to see what Grohl could do incorporating greater experimentation into this record, and that doesn't really happen, mostly because the majority of contributing instrumentation is guitarwork and backing vocals, with only the horns on 'In The Clear' being the biggest exception. Grohl stated interviews that he knew very little about jazz or New Orleans before coming there - and with that song, you can definitely tell. It doesn't help matters that this record, despite only having eight tracks, runs long, with the average track length being over five minutes. And that feels gratuitous when the instrumental ideas don't do enough to support it.

So okay, what about lyrical ideas? Well, let's ask the question where Grohl is strongest as a songwriter, and that's mostly linked to self-flagellating personal tracks and complicated relationships, and you definitely do get some of that on this album. But I'm having a hard time figuring out what statement the Foo Fighters were trying to make with Sonic Highways. In interviews it's been cited as a 'love letter to the history of American music', created through landing in places definitive to that history. But  there are some glaring absences to Grohl's road tour - there's no Detroit, there's no Philadelphia, and most surprisingly, there's no Memphis. You know, the birth place of rock and roll, where every self-respecting band that makes their musical love letter to American rock pays tribute, from U2 to Spinal Tap. 

But this is because this is a selective history, the sort where Grohl is looking to work with specific acts and styles - punk with Bad Brains in DC, country with Zac Brown in Nashville - and then tried to wedge in iconography surrounding said cities. And man, it feels thin. You can tell Grohl is stretching to include references to the cities themselves, but I reckon with few exceptions if you didn't know they were representative of certain cities, you wouldn't have a damn clue what these songs are about beyond standard Foo Fighters material. The big exception is Grohl's love letter to DC punk music in 'The Feast And The Famine', but that's because it feels grounded in a punk aesthetic and touches on social unrest rooted in that city's history, and it does have something of a unique sound within the album. But when you put it up against the Joe Walsh collaboration 'Outside', the tribute to LA that eventually falls into some of the stalest cliches imaginable surrounding the city, it doesn't really resonate. And a lot of this is an issue of Grohl's writing - he's strong when tackling nuance in framing relationships, but descriptive language has never been his strong suit and with this sort of album to capture the spirit of these cities, encompass their history, you need to be a descriptive songwriter if your music isn't going to emphasize the unique flourishes of each city. Grohl gets the tone here in going broad, and his populism is definitely an asset with these sorts of songs, but I don't think the writing gets there.

So in the end, for as much as The Foo Fighters have slammed U2 for Songs of Innocence over the past few months, this is the Foo Fighters' Rattle & Hum. Not the documentary - by comparison, the HBO series Sonic Highways is pretty awesome and engaging - but the album. It's a love letter to American musical history and culture that ultimately doesn't really absorb it into their music effectively. Many critics have said this is the Foo Fighters' drive to enshrine themselves in American music history, but I don't buy that - like this album or not, The Foo Fighters are surprisingly not pretentious with this album, mostly because at the end of the day they didn't step far from their comfort zone. So let's ask the question: is the album good? Well, yeah, I think it is - at its best moments it manages to capture enough of the flavour of the cities it draws upon while still delivering strong hooks, solid riffs, and a pretty damn good performance, and there are more good moments than bad. For me, I'm giving this a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a Foo Fighters fan. Do I wish they pushed the writing and sound a little further? Of course - but at the end of the day The Foo Fighters bring a consistency to their melodic, hard-rock driven sound, and beyond that, I didn't expect to get much more.

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