Sonic Highways is the most ambitious project the Foo Fighters have pulled off yet. Rather than just repeat what they know, the band set out to do a documentary series about making an album in eight cities. An album fueled by the stories and interviews collected for the documentary. A documentary that ties the rich histories of music in these cities to learning and incorporating it into modern day. The two feed each other so it is fairly impossible to consider the album without the documentary. In my eyes, both the series and the album are excellent. The music is filled with a new vigor from the pure inspiration while being around so many legendary musicians and locations. The lyrics piece together quotes, places and spirit into a different style of lyrics than the inward-looking style Dave Grohl usually uses. The result is eight strong songs that each have a story and life of their own. Eight songs may be short, but at around the 40 minute mark, it has the right length and flow to be one of those memorable albums with no filler. I really didn’t expect this album to be good enough to beat out some of my favorite bands of all time when put into a list. But fair is fair. This album moves me. And if you can find the eight episodes of the documentary, you owe it to yourself to watch it. If you are like me and love to soak up musician’s stories and music history, it doesn’t get better than this.
Here’s my original review…
Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl is the ultimate music geek. After making Sound City, one of the best music documentaries I’ve ever seen, he decided that his band couldn’t just repeat what they did on their last album, Wasting Light. So a decision was made to merge the two ideas. Why not do an album and a documentary at the same time? But rather than just be something like A Year and A Half In The Life of Metallica, where we just watch the band make an album in a studio, this would instead be an experiment that brings the viewer/listener along on the journey. So the process went something like this. Dave picked eight quintessential music cities in the United States. In each of these cities, Dave lined up interviews with artists, musicians, producers, anyone that had a major influence on that city’s sound. The band set up shop in a legendary recording space in that town. Dave went off to interview the various people on camera. The interviews were transcribed. The band would already be rehearsing a song with no lyrics. At the end of the week, the influences would add to the song in progress. In most situations, a regional but fairly known artist sat in with the band. Dave then put lyrics together using phrases and lines spoken by the interviewees. The result: eight songs that each carry the influence of the town in which each was recorded.
The documentary – now airing on HBO, also called Sonic Highways. I can’t praise the show enough. As of the time of writing this, six episodes have aired. The Foos have visited Chicago, Washington D.C., Memphis, Austin, Los Angeles and New Orleans. I feel I’ve learned so much watching the show. Dave has such a great way of getting the best stories out of people, many who have given so many interviews before. The difference is Dave Grohl’s wide-eyed approach. He’s every bit as excited to make these discoveries as we are. When he gets to use a famous stage, or a famous piano, you can tell he truly feels honored. The momentum and excitement carry over to the music in a big way. Dave and the band obviously want to pay respect to those that came before them.
So about the album – does it translate? Definitely! In each of the songs, you can hear not so much the cliches of what they should sound like, but rather, what the band gained in spirit by being around these people and locations and absorbing the spirit of the city. Since there are only eight songs – a roughly 45 minute album – I will break it down song by song.
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING: The trip starts out in Chicago. The city I have the most familiarity with since I grew up 90 minutes away. This song starts out a bit slower than most, and for those with a twitter-length attention span, you lose out. The intensity of the song builds and builds with every section, going from classic 70s rock, to a synthesizer that sounds much like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” to a fierce roar of “Fuck it all!! I came from nothing!” and a flurry of guitars and drums. Already this song is a contender with several of my alltime favorite songs of the band. The lyrics are a patchwork of the words and places explored in this episode. And Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson adds some great licks here as well. Nice beginning!
THE FEAST AND THE FAMINE: Then we go to Washington, D.C., Dave Grohl’s hometown. A lot of this episode dealt with two opposite ends of D.C.’s spectrum, hardcore punk and go-go music. This song rips with a ferocious intensity, no doubt sparked by Dave’s love of the band Bad Brains and reconnecting with his garage band days. This one has that stripped down raw sound that I love so much from “The Pretender”.
CONGREGATION: Then a change of pace. Off to Nashville. Here the focus is on the songwriters that were behind so much of the origins of country and “americana” or folk music. Another touch here is that Zac Brown of the Zac Brown band, a new friend of Dave’s is along for the ride and adds some interesting edge to the song. No, they didn’t make a country song. Thank goodness. Instead, what the band absorbed here was a history of songwriters trying to be heard and appreciated. That hunger, that stepping in front of “the congregation” is the point here. They didn’t pick up the twang of country, but they did pick up the outlaw spirit of some of country’s true originals that refused to be like the others. As much as I’m not really a fan of country, this was one of my favorite episodes so far, and the song is one of my favorites here.
WHAT DID I DO?/GOD AS MY WITNESS: Next we head to Austin, TX. The main focus of the story here was the show Austin City Limits, and how Austin is a town that’s different from the rest of Texas. Dave’s giddiness as he sees certain places and things and meets idols of his is such a great thing to watch. I think the “What did I do to deserve you?” is meant to be a positive, as in “how did I get so lucky?”. To see Dave’s reaction when he is told the band can record on the Austin City Limits stage is priceless. The song is definitely one of being overwhelmed with gratitude. Interestingly, the song is a two parter. But no worries, the band isn’t going prog-rock anytime soon. Gary Clark Jr., blues guitarist extraordinaire, joins the band here as well.
OUTSIDE: This one took seeing the episode to truly appreciate. Now I love it. This is the song recorded in Los Angeles. But while part of that episode deals with the downtown scene of the 80s (The Roxy, The Rainbow, etc), and some of it deals with glam and the English Disco club that played only the best British rock and roll, the biggest part deals with a studio outside of town in the desert called Rancho de La Luna. And of all California musicians, the Foos recruit Joe Walsh to solo on their song. Now realizing this song was made in the desert and not on a sunny beach or a ratty club, it completely makes sense. It has a lot of open space in the middle section, where Walsh lets the bass line breathe before he adds his guitar touches. This one grew on me and now it’s becoming a favorite.
IN THE CLEAR: New Orleans. So much history here. Where to start? What do the explore? New Orleans Jazz. Much of the story here surrounds the Preservation Hall, a tiny club of sorts where people would gather, that *doesn’t* sell booze, just to hear real live jazz by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, an old tradition of the town. The song has a lot of ties to the city’s history and famous spots and also the hurricane that ravaged it in the not all that distant past. The song’s lyrics and spirit are much of renewal and of the spirit not being broken. This is possibly my favorite song in the set. When the jazz band kicks in towards the end it lifts the song to another place. This song actually makes me want to visit New Orleans.
SUBTERRANEAN: Here’s where it’s harder, because the last two episodes haven’t aired yet. Yes, I realize I should be judging the music alone. But it’s hard to when the whole project is so much tied together the way this is. It’s bigger than just “a new Foo Fighters album”. It’s a project. An experiment for a group of music lovers to go on a quest and find that thing that reminds them why they love to be musicians. “Subterranean” finds them in Seattle. This one starts out with a more acoustic base than the rest of the songs, as has a slower paced classic rock feel. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say Heart is one of the focuses of the episode. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie sings harmony on this one. At the moment this is the least great of the eight songs for me, from eight songs where none of them are bad songs. And I have a feeling this will grow on me more with each listen, as it’s just not such an in-your-face song.
I AM A RIVER: And the last city to be featured is New York City. There’s so much history to choose from, so I can’t wait to see what this episode brings. But the guest artist here? The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. Okay I’m confused. I will have to wait to see why. But also, and maybe more importantly, Tony Visconti arranged the strings. Tony Visconti is a living legend. He’s produced many of the greats, from David Bowie to Morrissey to T. Rex to one of my recent favorites Semi Precious Weapons. The song is very much about the spirit that runs through the city… like a river. Pretty simple actually as far as lyrics. But sometimes simple is right. The song builds and builds into a crescendo with strings and guitars and pure joy. It’s a really nice way to close the album and the project.
So my love for Foo Fighters has gone back and forth over the years. Some of their albums were on repeat, like The Colour and The Shape, and others kind of ignored at the time like In Your Honor. Yes, I know I owe it to myself to go back to that one. But about the time their Greatest Hits album came out I was reminded why they are so good, and how many great songs they have. Wasting Light was a top notch rock and roll album. I wasn’t doing reviews back then, but it would have been up there in the top of my albums of the year. And with Sound City, I’ve just grown more and more fascinated with not only the band, but Dave Grohl as a person. To me he’s the embodiment of a true music fan. He lives and breathes this stuff. If anyone had his head in the right place to do this project right, it was Dave. And I’m so glad he did. In the process, Foo Fighters has made a bold and impassioned statement here that rock and roll and good music in general is alive and well. You have to look for it. You have to carry the torch and create more of that thing you feel is missing. And I’m so glad they are doing that with Sonic Highways.
You can get your own copy of Sonic Highways HERE:
Check out some videos from the album:
“Something From Nothing”
“The Feast and The Famine”
“In The Clear”