Sonic Highways

Foo Fighters

Roswell/RCA, 2014

http://www.foofighters.com

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/08/2014

A few years back, Kenny Wayne Shepherd made an album called Blues From The Backroads where he traveled down South in search of old blues musicians, bringing a film crew and the rhythm section from Double Trouble to document these veterans playing their craft in their natural habitat. It was a great album, full of each musician’s personality and Shepherd’s guiding but unobtrusive hand, and it set the standard for how albums like this should be approached.

 

Sonic Highways, the Foo Fighters’ eighth album, goes in the opposite direction. Dave Grohl and the band traveled to eight different cities, found a guest star, and recorded one new song in each city, writing the lyrics on the spot after spending some time there. The whole thing was filmed and broadcast on HBO as a miniseries to boot.

However, rather than a series of collaborations where the guest stars shine, or an homage to the sound of each individual city, this instead plays as a normal Foo Fighters album, albeit one that owes more of its sound to classic rock than the Foos’ brand of alt-rock. It’s not a disc that pushes their sound forward, but it solidifies their strengths, winding up as another solid rock album from one of the most dependable rock bands currently in existence.

If you forget the album’s inception and the list of guests and focus on the music, it reveals that much of it is solid yet uninspiring, without the catchy melodies of nbtc__dv_250 Wasting Light and instead with a broader, classicist scope and stadium-ready riffs. “Outside” is a good example; its arena rock ambition is anchored by a rumbling bass line, an excellent riff, some cool Grohl guitar work and a spiffy little midsection that drops out the guitar riffs for a sparse but effective Joe Walsh solo.

Walsh is one of the guests here, along with Gary Clark Jr., Rick Nielsen (of Cheap Trick), Zac Brown, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie), and Kristeen Young, the controversial singer-songwriter that Grohl and Pat Smear worked with in 2014. The thing is, if you don’t read the liner notes, you may not be able to tell which artist worked on which song. These aren’t songs where Gary Clark lends a blues flavor or Nielsen writes power pop/rock, but rather where they play as backup musicians to whatever song the Foo Fighters happened to bring to the studio that week. It’s not that they are wasted, it’s just that one expected the collaboration to result in something more than just more Foo Fighters songs.

But still, they are fine songs, if not as memorable or necessary as the band’s previous work. “Something From Nothing” uses the Foos trick of a quiet intro shifting into a loud verse, adding Grohl’s screams, some ‘80s rawk soloing and, of all things, a faster variation on the riff to Dio’s “Holy Diver” as the anchor. “The Feast And The Famine” is fast and loud, calling to mind the band’s older work, while “In The Clear” uses a standard Foos song as a template for adding on guitar layers, horns (buried in the mix, unfortunately) and vocal harmonies.

“Subterranean” purports to be inspired by Nirvana but hardly delivers, instead slogging as a six-minute midtempo drone that you won’t need to hear again. “What Did I Do? / God As My Witness” also should have been much better considering the involvement of Clark, yet the song never really gets off the ground. The closing seven-minute “I Am A River” goes for an epic feel, with its slowed-down tempo and presence of Young and Tony Visconti (best known for working with Bowie), but is far too repetitive with very little to say.

Still, when it’s over, the flash, noise, and central conceit of its recording history makes Sonic Highways seem a bit hollow. At least half of these songs can and possibly will receive rock radio airplay, and the majority will sound great in concert, where they were obviously meant to be played. But we know the Foo Fighters can write songs like this effortlessly, so it’s a shame that they wasted an opportunity to record with some fine musicians in some great American cities and get the most out of the talent at hand.

Rating: C

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