Review Summary: The Eccentricities and Mannerisms of American Music.
Dave Grohl's place as the ambassador of radio rock has come at an expense. Often he helps bring vitality to a genre that has been progressively losing steam in the 21st Century. However, his out-there attitude and demeanor lends itself to public ire- critics are fast and ready to cut him down to size.
That's evident in just about anything the man situates himself in. With Foo Fighters
, critics were keen to dissect arrant references to Kurt Cobain that really weren't prevalent. With The Colour & the Shape
, it came in forced middling reception echoed in future subpar readings by the likes of Pitchfork
. It even came to plague 2011's brilliant return to form, Wasting Light
- no matter what, critics were keen to throw around accusations that Grohl had lost steam, constantly pointing towards the likes of "Best of You" and "Long Road to Ruin" in an attempt to belittle his songwriting bravado. Already, it seems we're ready to distance ourselves from Sonic Highways
. In what it is one of Foo Fighters' most ambitious pieces yet, it seems about high time we the critics tell Grohl that he shouldn't be scaling for goals so tall. It's a shame that isn't the case; Sonic Highways
is just about the most innovative mainstream music experience of 2014.
can best be surmised as the flip-side to the sparseness of Wasting Light
's analog recording process. Running a comb through 8 of America's most iconic musical cities, Sonic Highways
sees Grohl examine the eccentricities and mannerisms of each city over the course of a week, digesting those influences and applying them to his own context. Largely, these adventures illuminate little- most will know of Dischord in Washington DC and Dollywood in Nashville- however that's not the point. Instead, Grohl examines how these influences have come together to form his own views on the songwriting process. That's where Sonic Highways
truly excels as both a documentary and vehicle for self-examination. It's not the fact that we're all now aware of the importance of Trouble Funk on post-hardcore, it's how Trouble Funk pushed a domino and eventually got to Grohl under cover of Fugazi. Later, Washington DC luminary Ian MacKaye details the struggles of punk that ultimately came to be its biggest strength, examining a David & Goliath narrative in the American capital. Resolutely, "The Feast & the Famine", a bombastic, under 4-minute rampage of punk-rock bluster not only educates us on the power of Minor Threat but wraps it around the signature Foo Fighters sound with remarkable results.
The method with which Sonic Highways
interacts with its audio and visual components is the most notable aspect of the record. The recurring motif of "Something from Nothing", a complex towering inferno of dynamic guitar sections and 'the flammable life', serves well as a mission statement and relevant theme song for the project. Written in the space of a week while experiencing the expansive musical history of Chicago, "...Nothing" is noticeably different from just about all other Foo Fighters compositions. Seemingly created without a clear hook in mind, the track becomes memorable and lovable for more than just one dimension. The constantly changing sections, the accelerating climax, the passionate and quickly scribbled up lyrics of an experience in Chicago. Truly, "Something from Nothing" is a larger symptom of Sonic Highways
, exhibiting at best its tendency towards on-the-spot lyricism and panoramic compositions.
It all might read a bit awry to think that this is a record codependent on its series. It's not underselling the songs as individuals; conversely, ...Highways
works as a brand new format, eschewing conventions to illuminate the importance of the creative process on both an audience and creator. Many have commented upon this as if it's one of the records' biggest faults- many have in fact forgotten to account for the Chicago episode and its interactivity with "...Nothing". Needless to say, an hour in the life of Grohl not only explains but allows greater appreciation for "Something from Nothing" as a composition; Rick Nielsen's extra guitar oomph, the funky "Holy Diver"-esque riff, the concept of how we all 'came from nothing'. It all stacks up in the end as an experience that's more than just those 5-minutes. In actual fact, it's all of Chicago compacted into a Buddy Guy narrative unpacked within Albini's audiophile dungeon. The greatest achievements aren't the (admittedly brilliant) individual tracks on the standalone album- "Congregation" and "What Did I Do?/God as My Witness" primarily succeed because of their contextual scope and ambition, soaring above the space they occupy on record.
With that in mind, the overall impression is that HBO
's documentary series really does go intrinsically with the album of Sonic Highways
, and its telling that the second-half comparatively pales to the monstrous standards of the first. Foo Fighters are still capable of scaling the same summits of their best tracks, however flagged references to host cities in the likes of "I Am a River" seem slightly vacuous considering the method of release ...Highways
takes. In a way, it's a cruel allusion to the power that the visual component holds in the records' dynamics; again, true of how "Subterranean" feels slightly disappointing at this moment in time. We know references to Seattle and Kurt Cobain are supposedly in abundance across the tense 6-minute run. At the minute, we aren't yet sure of what to make of them. Right now, it seems like a bit of a question mark yet to be fully realized.
Many may see this as a negative; I however take it as an opportunity to become more interactive with Sonic Highways
as an experience. Sate as I am with the hour of television and resulting songs Chicago, Washington DC, Nashville, and Austin spawned, I can confidently say I'll be returning to HBO
weekly to acquire relevant contexts to interact with and experience the remaining songs on the album. "Outside" is a terrific unwinding cable-car of a track- I'd absolutely adore it if I could find out what the currently gnomic phrases and Joe Walsh guest spot were all about. No doubt, the yet to be born anthem "In the Clear" will soar when in technicolor, justifying its connection to the jazz-indebted town of New Orleans. To that end, Dave Grohl has not just created a fantastic Foo Fighters album, he's made one that built anticipation for a month period either side of ...Highways
' release. It's unlikely any other record in 2014 (let alone any year) will still have me that hyped weeks after its initial release.
Of course, many have already set to cut Grohl's efforts down as a disappointment; criticisms of it being a continuation of the vapid rockism that by-and-large hindered Sound City
's companion piece. However Sonic Highways
thankfully works on greater echelons, interacting with its host series in remarkably fresh style. With this project, Foo Fighters have managed to take a deluxe-edition throwaway and transform it into a vital and engaging experience. When Grohl says that he's only recently started writing his best songs, you better believe him; Sonic Highways
is an innovative, concise, and brief mid-career opus.