Artist: Foo Fighters
Album: Sonic Highways
In Brief: With this aural tribute to eight of our country’s great cities, featuring artists as diverse as Ben Gibbard, Joe Walsh, and Zac Brown (and that’s just on my three favorite tracks), Foo Fighters have finally gotten me hooked after nearly two decades of me thinking they weren’t my style. Not every experiment works, but the band is wise to let the various genre influences from each city be a flavor rather than the entire dish, which makes the record overall more cohesive and engaging than the sum of its parts.
Foo Fighters are one of those bands I never really got into, but I could never really explain why. I’ve heard and enjoyed a few of their radio singles, most notably “Learn to Fly”, which seemed like it was on endless rotation in my early post-college years, right when my musical interests were becoming more mainstream and you’d think an alternative rock act with boisterous, catchy choruses would be right up my alley. I certainly got into tamer bands in that genre, but for whatever reason, I never got around to checking out a Foo Fighters record and seeing what they had to offer beyond just the singles.
Strangely enough, it took a very moody “deep cut” from their latest record Sonic Highways, one which I’d imagine would never be released as a single and which most of their fans might not even list as a highlight compared to the edgier material surrounding it, to make me finally take the plunge. You see, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between music and geography, in how our impressions of a city or a state or some favorite spot deep in the wilderness can jumpstart the creative juices, and how reflections written by the artist (or enjoyed by the listener) in such places can bring us back to those places years later. So when I heard from a friend who has followed Foo Fighters over the years that their latest record had each of its songs recorded in a different city (Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle, and New York City, to be precise), with the band taking inspiration from that city’s history and its impact on American music, naturally I was intrigued. At the time, I was putting together a playlist of songs specifically themed around the Pacific Northwest, one of my personal favorite parts of the country, so I figured I’d give “Subterranean”, the “Seattle song” from Sonic Highways, a listen on Spotify. You can skip down to the individual track review for my full thoughts on the song, but suffice to say, it was enough to make me want to hear more even though I knew not to expect anything else like it on the record. And while most of the remaining seven tracks are much more aggressive and all-around fun, for whatever reason that one’s stuck with me as a personal favorite. It was a bit of an obscure, back-alley sort of way to get into a band, but hey, whatever works.
The songs on Sonic Highways are accompanied by a “rockumentary” of sorts that I haven’t had the means to watch yet, which apparently chronicles the creation of these songs during the band’s trip around the country, as they visited with various musical luminaries and some of their personal heroes from each of those cities, and invited a few of them to contribute to the recordings. Setting up shop in eight different studios to write and record each of these tracks from the ground up was probably a bit of an arduous task, so this is one of those rare cases where I can accept that an album has less than the standard ten or twelve tracks I’d usually expect. As if to make up for the short track-listing, a few of these songs are allowed to run past the usual radio-friendly length of three or four minutes, allowing space for solos or for songs to transition into something different than what you might have expected from their opening verses, and ultimately making the album more of an immersive listen than it might otherwise have been. The guest performers where chosen more out of reverence than out of marketability as far as I can tell, and their contributions generally don’t scream “Hey, look at me!”. Most of their offer instrumental parts, maybe a backing vocal here and there, and the results are less “Hey, neato, Foo Fighters did a song with X!”, and more “Foo Fighters wrote a song and decided X had something meaningful to contribute to it.”
An interesting consequence of this approach – and something I’d consider both a pro and a con for this record, depending on the individual song – is that the Foo Fighters deliberately don’t stray too far from their core sound. A few of these cities added a flavorful spin to that sound, but the band deliberately didn’t set out to record a country song, a jazz song, etc. They work best within the confines of rock & roll, so even when you hear echoes of a vintage sound from decades past, the band isn’t pretending to be something they’re not, or that they were even old enough to know what was what when some of their influences were still in their heyday. It’s a good thing because it means the record isn’t a hodgepodge of weird sounds that might alienate some of their longtime fans. But in some cases it’s a bad thing because you have to wonder why they bothered with the guest artist in the first place, or even to visit the city in question if all they were going to come up with was a relatively poppy alt-rock sort of song. A few of these tracks sound like warmed-over Barenaked Ladies rejects, owing to the uncanny similarity between Dave Grohl and BNL lead singer Ed Robertson when backs off a bit on the vocal aggression. There’s nothing wrong with that similarity – I like Robertson just fine as a singer and I used to admire him as a songwriter before his band went disappointingly middle-of-the-road – but it reminds me of my ambivalence toward the guy lately, and that’s definitely not a reminder I want nagging me when I’m listening to something that is supposed to kick its ass volume-wise. It’s a minor flaw that only affects a few songs, though. Ultimately, Sonic Highways is a successful experiment, one that makes me wish they’d take another road trip and visit cities like Portland or Boston that got left out this time around.
1. Something From Nothing
The first track is one of the best examples of a song “morhping” over time, starting out with the lonely strum of an electric guitar, fooling you into thinking it might actually be some sort of a ballad, then zig-zagging into funkier territory thanks to Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, guest of honor for the band’s Chicago session, who tosses in an unexpectedly juicy baritone guitar part. The way that the song builds up to its highest, most hard-rocking point of intensity seems to shrug off the usual verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, though I’m sure the song has those elements, just not in the same predictable order. The lyrics briefly reference the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, using that as a metaphor for a riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches sort of story that finds Dave going from quietly reflective to hollering at the top of his lungs, “You can’t make me change my name!/You’ll never make me change my name!/Pay no mind, now ain’t that something/F*ck it all, I came from nothing!” I should note that this is one of the few swears on the album – I had sort of pictured Dave as the kind of guy who gets worked up to that level of angst quite often, but at least on this record, he seems like he knows how to save those words for where the fury warrants it. The band drives everything into the red with some insane drum fills and guitar solos as the song catches fire and comes to a crashing, extremely satisfying conclusion.
2. The Feast and the Famine
The second song is about Washington D.C., even though it was technically recorded across the river in Arlington, Virginia. The featured musicians this time around are Peter Stahl and Skeeter Thompson of the hardcore punk band Scream, and while I wouldn’t classify this song as strictly “punk” (partially because it has some strong melodic sections, more than three chords, and actual guitar solos), the aesthetic is certainly present in the chorus, where the lyrics are barked out in such a way that urgency matters more than enunciation. It makes part of the song gibberish at first, but since part of that gibberish is the song’s title, I can live with it. The start/stop rhythm of the verses and another set of impressive drum fills later on remind me again that Taylor Hawkins is no slouch, and the song does its job of protesting social injustice rather well, asking (at least if I understand it correctly) whether we’ve abandoned dreams of America being a refuge for the poor and the needy simply because it’s easier to blame the victims for their own problems and look the other way. Some of the chanting in the bridge – “We need a monument”, “Change will come”, etc. gets a bit cheesy, but I have to respect the band for tempering their frustration with at least the slight bit of optimism. Once again, when this song winds up, I’m left almost breathless from the sheer energy of it. Lots of bands can be loud, but it takes talent to truly sweep the listener up in the intensity of it. At just under four minutes, this is the album’s shortest track, but it feels like they got a hell of a lot done in that time.
The next two songs are the “Southern songs”, and before you all go running for the hills (or rather, away from them to avoid the hillbillies), let me assure you that they’re not trying to make country music here. There are some heavier rock bands who could pull that sort of thing off, but Foo Fighters wisely drops in a little Southern rock influence rather than straight-up country. Nashville, Tennessee is the town that this song calls home, and the guest is Zac Brown (whose band is technically based in Atlanta, but close enough), who contributes backing vocals and “devil pickin'” according to the credits. I’m assuming that’s electric guitar pickin’, because I hear the South loud and clear in this surprisingly spiritual anthem, but I don’t hear much of anything acoustic. The loud, twice-fried guitar riffs blend nicely in the band’s core sound, and Dave manages to surprise me again here with a song that tries to sort out the good and the bad of organized religion. Standing in a sanctuary, pondering the habits of egotistical men to pull a crowd’s puppet strings and all the social devastation that causes, but also acknowledging, “There’s mystery in this wood/And ghosts within these roots/That are tangled deep beneath this southern ground.” I have no idea what Dave personally believes (I had once assumed he was an atheist, but can I find no evidence of this out there on the web), but I think the song paints a beautiful (and boisterous) portrait of a man caught in between curiosity and skepticism, because he does seem to feel something special echoing through those pews, even if he’s suspicious that man has perverted it. That’s my take, anyway. You could probably read it as wholly hopeful or wholly cynical, depending on your own inclinations – the lyrics leave just enough wiggle room, and I like that about the song. My favorite part of the song may be how the driving backbeat remains steady through a more subdued section that begins with a quiet guitar solo, and that gradually whips itself up into a frenzy as Dave demands louder and louder, “Do you have blind faith? No false hope! Open your eyes! STEP INTO THE LIGHT!” Perhaps the best part is that the band manages to pull all of this off while resisting the temptation to drop in a Gospel choir. Again, some bands could make that work, but it’s a cliche I was sort of dreading here and I’m glad they were able to communicate “intense fervor” without taking a lazy shortcut.
4. What Did I Do?/God as My Witness
And then on the flipside of the whole “making Southern music work in their favor” thing, along comes the Austin, Texas entry, an annoying mish-mash of two songs rolled into one, which starts off with the inadvisable “lead singer and a lone piano trying to be soulful” cliche (punctuated by some noisy drum and guitar fills that feel really out of place), and then jump-starts it with blues-rocker Gary Clark, Jr. on guitar, leading the band in a bit of a fun boogie that might be a subtle nod to Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Sweet Home Alabama”, complete with honky-tonk piano. It’s corny, but I don’t mind that aspect of it so much as the jarring intro and outro to that first second, the latter of which returns us to the beginning of the song, and finds Dave hitting a truly painful note as he tries to make the transition into the slower, more anthemic second half of the song, which almost takes the lazy shortcut I referred to previously, not bringing in an actual choir, but leaning heavily on the God-talk in a way that just feels tacked on as a way to turn an awkward track into a last-ditch sing-along: “As God is my witness, yeah, it’s gonna heal my soul tonight.” I’m sure that this somehow informs the first section of the song, which is about two people arguing and putting words into each other’s mouths, but honestly, I’m just not relating to these lyrics.
This one’s about Los Angeles… sort of. Which is my hometown… sort of. It seems that both the Foo Fighters and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with what’s inside the actual city limits, and an insatiable wanderlust to explore the wide-open spaces that can be found if you’re willing to look past the sprawling suburbs engulfing its urban core. The actual studio was in Joshua Tree, of all places, though at no point does it reference U2, instead looking a little further back in time to the 70s, the glitz and the glamour of the music industry at the time, and the longing of certain artists to evoke simpler times, describing life on the road and out in the wild with an almost spiritual fervor. The first song to come to mind when I think of Southern California in that era would be The Eagles‘ “Hotel California”, and sure enough, their guitarist Joe Walsh shows up to throw down another extended solo during this song’s generously long instrumental break – which wisely doesn’t repeat the style of his most famous one, but which is smokin’ nonetheless. If you’re thinking soft rock and “takin’ it easy”, though, you should know that this is still a powerful, moving behemoth of a song, starting with dark bass and moody guitar and taking off at a sprint, never really losing steam even when it does take a breathe for that instrumental mid-section (which sounds like the part during a live show where the lead singer would introduce everyone in the band, but it picks back up swiftly enough). I connect a great deal to this song’s desire to find “space between the spaces”, to hear “the wind, the only sound”, to drive that “long, straight road” and find some beautiful place no one else has ever heard of. The California desert may evoke other images for you – deadheads in doorless vans, podunk towns, that time forgot, etc. But if I worked for the California tourism board, I’d want a song like this to help change your mind about it, because to me, it is a beautiful place (without any added stimulants needed to appreciate it).
6. In the Clear
New Orleans, Louisiana may be the city least appropriately served by the song intending to honor it on this record. You’ve got a unique melting pot of cultures there – French, Southern, Caribbean, etc. – and more than its fair share of jazz musicians have called the city home. Now I don’t know much about jazz. I know enough to know that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a jazz band. I know that jazz involves something more than just throwing a catchy horn section onto a stubbornly middle-of-the-road pop/rock track and calling it a day. And writing a song about New Orleans requires more than lazy references to things like paddlewheels and “a reaper marching in the second line”. Make the music feel these things if you’re gonna write them, man. Again, I’m not expecting the band to dive headfirst into a genre that is way out of their wheelhouse, but within other songs they’ve given their guests room to explore, to feel out the song, and here everything seems strict, colored inside the lines, and bound to radio-friendly mediocrity. (All except for the random outburst of “G*dd*mn I swear” in the first verse. Totally out of place for this easygoing of a song.) This is the moment where I feel like it’s basically a Barenaked Ladies tune dressed up with a few extra instruments. I’d still say it’s meatier than anything the BNL have done in terms of the pure weight of the guitars, but they’re just sort of chugging along for most of the song, even playing their lead riff by the numbers as it predictably follows the horn melody and a lazily tacked-on sing-along at the end. I do not know what conflict has yet to be resolved that has Dave declaring “You are not in the clear, don’t you go count me out now, dear.” Just the use of “dear” alone makes me shudder. That’s the polar opposite of badass, Dave, and this doesn’t sound like much of a “sensitive” song otherwise, so what gives?
This was the “Seattle song” that got me hooked. It’s the mellowest track on the album by far, and also its darkest mood-wise, though surprisingly, it doesn’t go back to the expected well of “grunge music” that Dave and his bandmates in Nirvana were the poster boys for up until Kurt Cobain met his tragic end. Dave is 20 years on from that loss now, and I guess he felt like reflecting on the sorrow and depression he went through at the time as well as the creative rebirth that led him to start Foo Fighters. He explores this to a mostly minor-key tune, strummed out on acoustic guitar, with the electric guitars contributing what I’d call “a melodic haze” more so than actual riffs or anything immediately catchy. Something about the twists and turns of the chord progression, starting out all grey and rainy, but letting the sun peek through at different angles as the sky shifts from gloomy grey to a serene red sunset, to night and then back again, just as the irregular rhythm shifts into 4/4, then 6/8, then the combination of the two that it started with. Dave’s lyrics seem defeated, hopeless, buried in self-pity at first, using the “Seattle underground” (a series of streets and shops that were fully built over to the point where the current-day street level is a floor above, leaving a spooky sort of modern catacombs behind) as a metaphor for his mental state at the time. People try to dig down into the earth to free him, but he rejects their efforts, claiming, “You might think you know me/I know damn well you don’t”. You can hear the resignation in his voice as the melody, which showed some promise of lifting itself up to a more peaceful place, keeps sliding back down. The guest here – which I almost forgot to mention since his contribution on backing vocals is hard to make out behind Dave’s voice, is Ben Gibbard, frontman of Death Cab for Cutie. I suppose that this would qualify this as a “sensitive guy” song, because even though Ben isn’t credited with a co-write, its unflinching look at “hell and back again” reminds me of a few Death Cab songs where he’s stood on his own personal brink of the abyss. At the same time, the overall sound of it isn’t something I’d expect from either band, and while it’s easily the least catchy thing on the record, it has its own subtle beauty that cast a spell on me at first listen and still hasn’t let go.
8. I Am a River
The fade-in as the final chord of “Subterranean” resolves to a single, faint glow of sunlight is one of my favorite moments on the record – it’s brimming over with cautious hope, and it leads beautifully into the serene guitar arpeggios that open this song. As an instrumental piece unto itself, the first two or three minutes of this track would be a sure-fire winner. They’re way outside the kick-ass-and-take-names musical attitude of most of this record, but that makes me all the more impressed at this band’s breadth. Unfortunately, once it settles into the song proper, it’s a bit pedestrian for what’s meant to be a grand finale. New York City is the inspiration here, specifically an underground river that flows beneath it, which not only gives it strong ties to the themes of the previous song, but it also brings the record full-circle since “Something for Nothing” mentioned finding a river under the ground in its very first verse. Other themes from the remaining songs are name-checked here (some subtly, some not so much), as are a few locals in the Big Apple (ditto) that acted as gateways to this mysterious world, this forgotten channel of life and growth left to fester beneath a bustling city. Of course you can see where this metaphor’s going, and it’s probably the least subtle out of any on the record, with most of the last half dedicated to a very repetitive chorus, which may be inspiring in its mood, but which feels stubborn in its adherence to the “strum every quarter note with equal emphasis” school of songwriting popularized in the 2000s. Tony Visconti, a Brooklyn-based producer and frequent collaborator for David Bowie, along with singer/songwriter Kristeen Young, are the final guests of honor, though the latter’s involvement is limited to backing vocals, and for the life of me I cannot make out a female voice anywhere in the mix. Visconti gave the song a string arrangement, which is the defining trait of the song’s grand finale, almost to the point of Disney-esque silliness. When this very long song comes to a sudden crescendo and a rather neatly resolved final note, I’m not sure that all of its seven minutes are well spent. But there’s half of a good composition here, in search for something better than a by-the-numbers mid-tempo ballad to anchor it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Something From Nothing $1.50
The Feast and the Famine $1.25
What Did I Do?/God as My Witness $.50
In the Clear $0
I Am a River $1
Dave Grohl: Lead vocals, guitars, drums
Chris Shiflett: Guitars, backing vocals
Pat Smear: Guitars, backing vocals
Nate Mendel: Bass
Taylor Hawkins: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: