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Stalled on ‘Sonic Highways’

| Thursday, November 13, 2014

sonic-highway-webSusan Zhu | The Observer
To say the least, Foo Fighters’ new album “Sonic Highways” is quite the concept. For the band’s 20th anniversary, Dave Grohl and the gang went on a cross-country road trip, stopping at eight major musical meccas — Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York City — where they embraced the culture and interviewed the cities’ music icons. On the last day of their trip in each destination, the Foos wrote some lyrics and jammed out a track in a famous studio of each city. As a sort of an expansion of Groh’s 2013 documentary project, “Sound City,” the entire trip was filmed and turned into an eight episode docuseries that is currently airing on HBO. So there’s two “Sonic Highways” then — the TV show and the album. For the purposes of this review, we will be strictly focusing on the merits of the album.

Most people would argue that the Foos are a singles band and at times generic, and looking through their discography, it becomes hard to disagree. Any band that can include “Walk,” “Everlong,” “Times like These,” “Rope,” “The Pretender,” “ Best of You,” and “Learn to Fly” (just to name a fraction) among its greatest hits clearly knows how to rock the radio and sell out stadiums. But that’s why a project like “Sonic Highways” is so exciting. It’s an ambitious concept and the culmination of a decade or so of taking serious risks, from acoustic double LPs like “In Your Honor” and — my personal favorite — 2011’s garage rock revival “Wasting Light,” that shows a band who has matured and redirected its focus to the album as a whole.

The problems of the album lie in the ambition: as outstanding and unique as a concept as “Sonic Highways” is, the album never seems to reach its lofty goals. One of the major goals the Foo Fighters set forth with “Sonic Highways” was to try to incorporate the focus and history of the cities they traveled to into the songs. Unfortunately, unless you have watched the show, it’s nearly impossible to tell apart the songs. “Congregation,” for example, is a great Foo Fighters song, but I would never been able to tell that it was inspired by the country sounds of Nashville or that Zac Brown was involved in the guitar solo. Overall, mistakes like this makes “Sonic Highways” feel like a rather unclear album filled with the arena rock we have come to expect from the Foos, but to a subpar degree.

At times, the goals and rules of the “Sonic Highways” project feel less like a creative way to redevelop the songwriting process and more like limitations that constrain what Grohl and the rest of the group can accomplish. As we know from “Wasting Light,” Grohl is at his best as a songwriter when he engages in relationship issues and a simple, direct approach to ideas. Here, the high ambition to encompass the ideas of a city in a song, in a day of lyric-writing no less, proves to be beyond Grohl’s songwriting capabilities. For instance, the refrain for “The Feast and the Famine” feels lazy at best, as Grohl repeats that phrase four times each refrain, leaving listeners exhausted and worn out.

In spite of problems like this, “Sonic Highways” is still a solid experience for Foo Fighters fans. “I Am A River,” an epic seven-minute sprawl through New York is highly recommended and far and away the best song on the album. With this, Grohl and co. try something totally unanticipated here by making a song so long and so focused on the instrumentals and progressions that this is one of the best album closers they’ve put together, second only to “Walk.” Songs like “I Am A River” show the growth and potential that the album as a whole could have had if the Foo Fighters had maybe given themselves more time to digest each city.

Of course, perhaps it is not right to judge the album on its own merit, but view the album and the television series as a complete multimedia experience. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to assess that complete experience for a few more weeks, when all of the episodes are finally released. Until then, if you’re a Foo Fighters fan, you should definitely check out the album. Otherwise, I would recommend waiting until the series wraps up to ride the sonic highways.

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