Meant to NOT be an accompanying soundtrack to the Foo Fighters’ current HBO documentary on American Music, but working much better as one, Sonic Highways is chock full of of plenty of what makes the Foo Fighters America’s Greatest (Current) Rock Band, but suffers from a serious lack of what makes them sublime.
The Foo Fighters really are America’s Greatest Rock Band at this point in their career and especially at this point in the history of mainstream rock. Everybody loves Dave Grohl. He’s the nicest guy in rock. He can work with anyone (even country acts like The Zac Brown Band) and make them sound even better. Finally, he rocks harder than anyone in rock with his own band. The combination of Chris Shiflett (whose solo band Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants is quite good), the now legendary Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins (drums) and Nate Mendel (bass) have written and recorded some of the best rock records and songs of the past 20 years. Best of all, they did it by doing it their own way. Dave Grohl took the loud roar of Nirvana and turned it into something unafraid to show a slightly more sensitive side while still rocking the hell out and achieving that rare aforementioned sublimity (see “Walk” off of Wasting Light , “Cold Day in The Sun” off of In Your Honor, and “Long Road To Ruin” off of Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace).
So, 20 years in, comes Sonic Highways, a concept album that showcases the band’s recording of 8 different songs in eight different American cities, each with a hefty musical history. Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, and Washington D.C. served as inspiration for each of the songs. Unfortunately, Grohl and company have ascended to the top of the rock pile by following their own inspirations, not those of any particular city-including Seattle. Perhaps their inspiration this time WAS to make a concept album of songs that slyly evoke the spirit of said locale’s music, but while The Foo Fighters really are one of the greatest rock bands ever, they aren’t quite as elastic (for better or worse) than bands like U2, who can take a spirit of a locale and turn it into something unique AND rocking (a la Achtung Baby which had major parts recorded in Berlin at Hansa Studios during the fall of the Berlin Wall). The Foo Fighters’ strength, and longevity, come from sticking to what they do best, which is definitely not slappy sounding funk guitar riffs.
“Something From Nothing,” (the Chicago track) while actually rocking pretty hard (again there are great moments here), really jars the listener into the realization that there are other influences going on here that really don’t fit well with what legions of fans have come to associate with that tried and true Foo Fighters’ sound. The slappy, funky, wanky, guitar that evokes more of a cheap porno soundtrack than a 70s inspired funk blast nearly derails the entire track. “The Feast and The Famine,” (the Washington D.C song) a much stronger track, is much stronger because it really sounds like the best of the pop punky, yet hard as a rock, type rock songs that we’ve been getting from the Foo Fighters from years that always, and I mean ALWAYS, manage to make sound fresh and energetic. “Congregation” (the Nashville song) is a pretty solid track, but for the first time The Foo Fighters almost seem to be repeating themselves. The track is way too similar to the also abovementioned, and sublime, track, “Long Road to Ruin.” “Congregation” chugs along, but there’s a little too much weak riffing and open space that Grohl doesn’t take as solid advantage of here as he has elsewhere. “What Did I Do?God As My Witness” (the Austin song) really is a strange one. While it overall works, the fitful starts and stops mixed with the the second half’s Beatles-que riffs makes for a pretty schizophrenic song. Half Jack White and half Beatles, “What Did I Do?God As My Witness” is unlike pretty much anything we’ve heard from the Foo Fighters, but sadly it’s pretty much unlike anything we’ve heard from the Foo Fighters.
“Outside” (the Los Angeles song) hums along like a buzz along an LA freeway, albeit decidedly out of town and into the desert. Echoey with plenty of cavernous spaces between the notes and beats, “Outside,” which showcases Grohl singing about canyons, also showcases the most different sounding vocals from Grohl ever recorded. He almost sounds like Axl Rose in ballad-ish mode. That’s a wild one, considering the long buried and ended (and resolved) hullabaloo between Grohl, his old band, and the reclusive Guns n’ Roses singer. “In The Clear” (the New Orlean track), where Grohl talks about “dancing with the spirits in the square,” over a chugging guitar/drum beat thankfully avoids being the Foo Fighters’ first jazz experimentation. The song does engage in some really high guitar notes that almost sound like a brass section, something that definitely denotes a New Orleans sound. Beyond that, it’s perhaps the weakest track on the album. It really goes no where, whereas at least “Outside” drove us along sonically. “Subterranean” (the Seattle song), conversely is one of the best songs on the album. An acoustic guitar driven track, it’s as dreary as a rainy Seattle day, without being dreadful (in more than one sense of the word). Most Seattle bands came up from the underground, and, as we all know, the biggest of all didn’t survive past their lead singer’s 27th year. Like the best the Foo Fighters have to offer though, there are brilliant rays of sunshine peeking through here and there throughout “Subterranean,” mostly because of the excellent electric guitar strumming and picking. The album’s final track “I Am a River” (the New York song) opens with an almost Pink Floyd-like sound that morphs out of the end of “Subterranean.” The sonic link between the two uniquely links both the cities in which each song was recorded. New York is the birthplace of so many great artists that it’s difficult, apparently even for Dave Grohl, to pick an influence and stick to it throughout “I Am a River.” There’s a little bit of Sonic Youth noise, as well as some Ramones punk chords, all mixed with a smattering of Velvet Underground underground guitar playing, but the huge crescendo near the end of the song is all Foo Fighters, with the exception of the strings.
So, Grohl and company pay slant tribute to many popular and rock music city based conventions, but really don’t sound as inspired or spirited as they usually do when they are doing their own thing. It’s almost as if the Foo Fighters are trying a little too hard to do (but not necessarily be) something other than what they already are: one of America’s greatest rock bands of all time. Hopefully, now that Dave Grohl has gotten this concept album stuff out of his system, the Foo Fighters can get back to being what they are.