How did this happen? When?
A few weeks back I caught a list from Spin magazine: all 147 Foo Fighters songs, ranked.
147? Granted this includes b-sides, covers etc. But it’s still 147 songs that have been released by Mr Grohl and his band of merry men.
I agree with the list for the most part. It’s unlikely they’ll ever better Everlong. But what surprised me and begs the opening questions is – how and when?
Granted; next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the first Foo Fighters album (yes, yes; that was all Dave) but somehow they’ve gone from being ‘that guy from Nirvana’s new thing’ to a bonafide, long-lasting band with a very very strong back catalogue chock full of songs that are precisely written and virtually all guaranteed a place on whatever alternative / rock radio stations still exist (I think it’s usually a daily occurrence to hear a Foo’s song on Xfm).
They’re like the Matt Damon of rock in this way – quietly and calmly going from ‘that Good Will Hunting guy’ to an actor with an extremely credible filmography and calmly churning out strong, consistent and enjoyabe (though not ‘set the world alight’) performances.
So, just as I’m quite happy about the announcement of a new Damon-starring Bourne film, I was quite happy to hear about the new Foo Fighters album when it starting being discussed…. how “nobody has ever done anything like this” etc etc.
Grohl has talked about going the Radiohead / experimental route (I do wish he would) but it was something a bit more straightforward – the Foos put together a bunch of solid, guitar crunching riffs and went on a tour of those 8 (budget / logistics restricted) cities in the US that have a documentary-worthy / personally relevant music scene / history for a week at a time, talk to the leading lights of that scene, write the lyrics based on the experience, have a few guests from each week guest on that track, record it in a famous local studio and have HBO film it, put the whole thing out as a very engrossing docu-press kit type thing.
Well, I say “straightforward”… that is quite a big task. The whole recording in multiple settings has been done before, usually when a bands on a long tour and keen to get another album out (REM’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi possibly the best) but the rest… probably not. And, to be honest, because there’s probably not all that much point to it, really.
I’m sure, from the little I’ve been able to see, until a Blu-ray version drops (probably / hopefully in time for Christmas), and read of, the Sonic Highways series is a great 8-part gem. How could it not be; Dave Grohl rocking up in Washington DC, Seattle, Austin etc and talking to local musicians / icons about music then strapping instruments on at the end?
However, how much this lends to the album itself remains negligible. Each of the eight tracks on Sonic Highways has a guest. Each of those guests could just as easily have not swung by. It’s virtually impossible, for instance, to pluck out Rick Nielsen’s baritone guitar from the mix on “Something From Nothing” or what’s specifically ‘Joe Walsh’ of that Eagles’ contribution to “Outside”. Though Gary Clark Jr does tear the arse off of the otherwise plodding, Skynrd-esque “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness”.
The other element that stops me listening to “In The Clear” and perhaps saying “oh you can totally hear the New Orleans scene in that” is that a) as a now three-guitar strong band, it would take a lot to really have an obvious impact and b) I’m English and have no bloody idea what any influence of the New Orleans scene might sound like.
The kinda-pointless approach does mean, however, that while it doesn’t add to the album in an overly noticeable way, it also means you don’t need to know about the depth of, say, Washington’s music scene, to enjoy the album as it remains a thoroughly enjoyable slab of Foo Fighters guitar blast.
Opener “Something From Nothing” is my son, Elliott’s, favourite sound at the moment. He’s 11 months old. When this song comes on it gets his full attention and when the drums kick in so does his rocking out dance. This makes me a little bias of course. It’s a solid album opener, a little different for the band in it’s slow-to-build style and has the strange addition of a 70’s porn-style breakdown. It’s lyrics “fuck it all I came from nothing” are a fitting nod to the nature of the Foos, perhaps, and Chris Shifflett’s guitar solo is a little too late and short but this is a solid track that will get lodged in your head.
It’s followed by “Feast and the Famine” – a strangely heavy / punk-rock song to staple Martin Luther King Jr assination references too but it’s got the stop/start, fast/faster Foos dynamics that they’ve got down tight all over it. At 3:49 it’s the shortest thing on Sonic Highways.
Further on the album “Congregation” is a belter of a track (a sister track to Wheels perhaps) but, lyrically, no matter how many times I hear it I can’t really get down to the use of the word as being anywhere near as anthemic as they’re going for – it’s far too lumpy as a word.
“What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” is, sadly, a turd. Well, almost. It tries to do too many things and leans far too close to Lynyrd Skynrd BUT it is – as mentioned – saved by the guest spot. Gary Clark Jr tears through his lead part on this and pulls the song through the muck it dropped itself in. I also love the story of his recording:
…he walked into the studio and didn’t even bring a guitar. He just took one from Pat Smear – Pat hadn’t even played it yet and it still had a tag on it – and does three takes and that’s it. Pat said, “Just fuckin’ keep it.”
Elsewhere; “Outside” – obviousness of guest or not – is a dark, brooding beast that I enjoy everytime. Ben Gibbard’s presence on “Subterranean” is a nice addition but the song is strong in its own right and “I Am A River” is another slow burning build up.
The only real disappointment from me with Sonic Highways is that – again, as a UK resident – I didn’t get to specify the cover on my LP. I got… and I had to actually look it up as I haven’t a clue of this city’s landmark… Austin. Though, given this is the city of the Gary Clark Jr solo I suppose I couldn’t mind despite – obviously – hoping for the Seattle cover.
So, I’m off to find what I can hear of Gary Clark Jr….