Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways (2014)

Foo_Fighters_8LP_Sonic_Highways

Sonic Highways is the Foo Fighters’ most ambitious album yet. By now, we all know the back story. There’s an HBO documentary in the vein of Sound City, the band is recording a new song in each of the historic eight cities they visit, the lyrics are influenced by the cities’ history…and so on and so forth. It’s a grand idea and an interesting way for an old band to recharge themselves…right?

The answer is somewhere in between. Sonic Highways is the very definition of a mixed bag, at times lending the Foos a fresh sound and at others sounding completely dull and contrived. What the ‘Sonic Highways’ concept allows the band to do is to mix in the sounds of each city with their trademark arena-filling rock, giving them easy avenues of exploration. Perhaps the band knows they’ve never strayed very far from their roots – they’ve been trying to shake up their sound since 2005’s In Your Honor, with varying results. Sometimes it works, like on the excellent Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, and other times it falls flat, like the forced electric/acoustic duality of In Your Honor (which only yielded maybe one good album’s worth of material).

So, then, where does Sonic Highways come up short? Well, despite having literally a country’s worth of music history and influences to draw from, the result isn’t really all that different than anything they’ve done in the past decade. There’s flashes of experimentation that work wonderfully, like the brass-charged ‘In the Clear’, or the orchestra on the grand ‘I Am A River’, but even then, all it is is new paint on an old car. And when the band does decide to stick firmly to their guns and stay within their comfort zone, we get a beautifully tender track like ‘Subterranean’, which hearkens back to In Your Honor‘s acoustic better half.

Further proving that the Foos can assimilate anything into their sound and still sound the same, Sonic Highways’ wealth of guest spots had the chance to turn this into another Sound City-esque soundtrack album, with each guest allowed to steal the show on their respective songs. Instead, they fit seamlessly into the songs they guest on: Zac Brown lends an excellent clean guitar solo to ‘Congregation’, bringing the song naturally back down from it’s soaring post-chorus guitar lines. Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick simply provides another layer of guitar on ‘Something from Nothing’, instead of having a chance to really show off his chops, and Joe Walsh is utilized similarly on ‘Outside’. In fact, without knowing who’s on what track ahead of time, it’s pretty much impossible to tell that there’s any guests at all. Oddly enough, this is a quality shared with Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork, another project Grohl was involved with recently.

As far as Foo Fighters albums go, Sonic Highways is fairly short. With only 8 tracks, it clocks in at 43 minutes, pushing the average track length into the 5 and 6 minute range for most of the songs. Despite the short track list, Sonic Highways still has trouble forming into anything resembling a cohesive album, and ends up sounding more like a compilation of slightly more complex Wasting Light b-sides. The only time any real flow happens is the segue between Subterranean and I Am A River, which is one of the best moments here. Otherwise, it’s every song for itself. And unlike 2011’s Wasting Light, which was packed with hit singles, Sonic Highways looks unlikely to repeat that success for them. Dave Grohl had mentioned before the album’s release that he had briefly considered making this the weirdest, darkest Foo Fighters album yet, but then decided ‘fuck that’. It shows. Sonic Highways sits on the fence between experimentation and writing within the confines of the alt-arena-rock sound they’ve traded on for twenty years, and fails to do either particularly well because of it.

For all the hype and bombast surrounding this album and its release, the many guests, and the influence of an entire country’s musical history, it simply fails to do anything special. This should have been the moment the Foo Fighters finally threw off the shackles of radio rock and wrote their most ambitious album yet, and they certainly had every in-road to doing such available to them. Instead, what we got was something that just settles for ‘okay’, masquerading under the guise of being ambitious. By trying so hard to do something different, they got in the way of their own natural songwriting process, and ended up with something far too familiar instead. Wasting Light excelled because it embraced the best qualities of the band and used them to their fullest, where Sonic Highways tries to hard to be something different to no avail. Sometimes I miss the days when the Foo Fighters were just another rock band among many, instead of the rock band, instead of the biggest rock band in the world. I’m sure they’ll still continue to be just as successful, between the admittedly excellent HBO documentary, and ‘Something From Nothing’ getting the prerequisite air time on rock stations around the country. But they didn’t need Sonic Highways to do it; any album and any batch of songs they wrote would’ve had the same effect.

Key Tracks: Something From Nothing, Subterranean, I Am A River

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New Foo Fighters Song, ‘Something from Nothing’

Foo Fighters have just released the first single from their upcoming album, Sonic Highways, and boy is it a killer track. It’s not an out of the gate rocker like a lot of their singles, but builds up with a slow burn of a verse, eventually exploding at the end with one of Grohl’s best screams since the ’90s. And for once, Grohl is actually singing, instead of just shouting, and the result is wonderful. “Something From Nothing” almost feels like old school Foos, with more emotion and dynamics than anything on Wasting Light. If this song is a taste of what’s to come, I’m officially excited for this album.

Foo Fighters – Wasting Light (2011)

Photo Credit: Foo Fighters

On Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace, the Foo Fighters were tracing a clear evolutionary path that started on In Your Honour‘s acoustic disc they were starting to blend a softer, acoustic side into their rock songwriting, creating a dynamic, mature record that they hadn’t come close to before. Fast forward four years from that album, a time in which their first Greatest Hits compilation was released, as well as a stint behind the kit in Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl, and we get Wasting Light, the band’s newest offering.

Wasting Light seems to forget the past six years. Having the distinction of being the only album recorded in Dave Grohl’s garage, it sounds like the product of it’s environment. Largely gone is the push and pull, loud and soft dynamic of Echoes, and instead, it’s replaced by a solid 48 minutes of rock. From the get-go, it starts of with a jangling pick-scrape rhythm, before bursting into a powerful guitar riff and Grohl’s scream of “these are my famous last words”. Much of the album follows this pattern, of big distorted guitars and intense vocals, and even when it calms down for a moment, it settles comfortably into the niche Grohl created on There Is Nothing Left to Lose – well-crafted, mid-tempo rock songs destined for the radio.

And while this is the best rock they’ve played since The Color and the Shape, I can’t help but feel like it’s a step back. Echoes demonstrated that they have the potential to be something else besides the biggest alternative arena rock band out there, by putting Dave in what I think is his best environment – an acoustic one. But despite that, I can’t be too disappointed. This is one of the most solid albums the band has written in a good while, avoiding the confused and muddled sound of One by One and the bombast of In Your Honour‘s rock side. It sounds like how it was recorded, by a bunch of friends hanging out in a garage, playing music together. It’s fun, natural, and doesn’t demand much of the listener. Each of the songs is built to get stuck in your head, without resorting to over-the-top hooks or the cliched sound of many modern rock bands. It may be a step off of the path they were originally forging before their break, but it’s deliciously Foo in every way, and fires on all cylinders.

11 Albums You NEED to Hear

1. Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses

For something recorded in 1987, it’s raw, fresh, visceral, and relevant.

2. Ten by Pearl Jam

A perfect, well-rounded album. Strong riffs, thoughtful lyricism, and an anthemic sound bring it all together.

3. The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails

It’s long, but there’s a lot of great, complex songs to dig into.

4. Black Holes & Revelations by Muse

Muse has always been a stunning band, and with this release, they play to their strengths. There is an obvious addition of electronica elements added to their hard-rocking, Queen-esque sound, as well.

5. Pinkerton by Weezer

Quirky, off-beat, and catchy could sum this record up well. Full of raw confessions and blaring guitars, it’s a definite departure from their debut, and arguably their best work.

6. Binaural by Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam took a big leap here,s tepping into unchardted territory while creating meaningful songs that ignore their “grunge” label.

7. Shangri – La Dee Da by Stone Temple Pilots

Lots of psychedelic elements mixed with STP’s traditional hard-rocking/alternative sound. It’s more “them” then any prior work.

8. Title of Record by Filter

Moving from their atypical industrial sound, the fury actually lets up for a few moments with slower tracks like “Take a Picture”, all while new textures blend with and explore the band’s sound.

9. Into the Wild by Eddie Vedder

A folksy, ambitious solo album from Pearl Jam’s lead singer that merges perfectly with the movie it scores.

10. Superunknown by Soundgarden

Cornell’s voice is Earth-shattering, and as a whole the record is very cohesive and muscular.

11.  The Colour and the Shape by Foo Fighters

Take the drummer from Nirvana, give him a backing band, and add his throat-shredding vocalls and aggressive power-chords and you get an album that’s a perfect snapshot of mid-90s rock after the grunge explosion.