Monday, November 17, 2014

FOO FIGHTERS- 'SONIC HIGHWAYS' (ALBUM REVIEW)

By: Connor Glowacki

Photo Courtesy of jambase.com
     The Foo Fighters, originally a side project for former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl after Kurt Cobain's death in 1994, has become arguably one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Despite numerous lineup changes, the band has lasted for nearly 20 years and have become a staple for rock and alternative radio. Before news of a new album was leaked out over the summer, the Foo Fighters had released seven well received albums full of guitar and hook driven rock music meant for stadiums, arenas, and festival shows. However, the main complaint that music critics have pointed out about the Foo Fighters is that most, if not all, of their albums sound similar to one another. The band's last album, 2011's 'Wasting Light', was their first number one album and featured rock radio hits including, 'Rope', 'Walk', and 'These Days'.
'Sonic Highways' Album Cover
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
     News was also released that the band was filming a documentary where they would visit classic music studios in eight U.S. cities to learn more about the musical culture that the United States continues to offer. And then we learned that at each of these studios, Grohl would interview several famous musicians and the Foo FIghters would record a song in each city for their new album. Both the documentary and the album have been titled, 'Sonic Highways'.
     It's certainly an ambitious project and Grohl has stated in interviews that this is the first time that any musical act has decided to record an album in this kind of manner. With that being said, here is a track by track breakdown of the new Foo Fighters album, 'Sonic Highways'.

1.) Something From Nothing

Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen
featured on 'Something From Nothing'
photo courtesy of ultimateclassicrock.com
     The first single released from 'Sonic Highways' is the Chicago inspired song on the album. It was recorded at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. Fun fact: Albini was the producer for Nirvana's 1993 album, 'In Utero'. 'Something From Nothing' features Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen as the city's 'guest of honor'.
     The song opens with a quiet guitar riff that repeats itself throughout the opening verses. Throughout these verses, Grohl makes various references to Chicago in the lyrics. One example is when he sings, 'There is a city on fire...the arsonist's choir'. It appears to be a reference to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
     Without a traditional chorus, there is a gradual increase in sound as distorted guitars start wailing  towards the latter half of the song. Strangely, 'Something From Nothing' features a hypnotic vibe that is almost psychedelic. However, towards the end of the song, it become a classic Foo Fighters song with soaring vocals from Grohl, a propulsive drum beat by drummer Taylor Hawkins, and a tight guitar solo by Nielsen to bring the track together. It ends with a solid fadeout between the diminishing power chord progression and riding cymbals.
     A great start to 'Sonic Highways' that fits very well within the Foo Fighters catalogue, but also has enough subtleties to make it unique.

2.) The Feast And The Famine

     'The Feast And The Famine' is the Washington D.C. inspired song off the album and it was inspired by both the iconic hardcore punk scene in D.C., but also the 1968 riots in the city following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was recorded at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Virginia, which is also Grohl's hometown.
     This is a more aggressive song all throughout, compared to 'Something From Nothing'. Grohl's raspy vocals along with guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett trading off guitar riffs were the true highlights of this song. As Grohl sings, "Still screaming until I die. Change will come, is anybody out there', you are able to connect with what Grohl is conveying through the passion he puts forth when singing his lyrics.
     Sonically, the song is similar to 'Monkey Wrench' from the band's 1997 album, 'The Colour And The Shape'. The chorus gets an added punch with the inclusion of gang vocals by Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson, both members of Virginia punk rock band, Scream. This song will be a perfect fit at concerts, especially for starting mosh pits. So far, it's been a one-two punch great start for 'Sonic Highways'.

3.) Congregation

Country singer Zac Brown
featured on 'Congregation'
Photo Courtesy of wgna.com.
     Now we move to the Nashville inspired song on the album, 'Congregation'. This song features country singer Zac Brown. He is the lead singer for the critically acclaimed country act, Zac Brown Band. The song opens with an interesting distorted guitar sound that also utilizes a twang reverb to give it a classic country rock vibe.
     Just like the previous two songs, there are several references to the music that this city represents. Nashville is country, but it is also instantly gospel. Gospel is rooted in many different types of genres and many of the best singers in Nashville started singing in the church.
     The lyrics also depict Nashville as a city where musicians come to thrive and find their voice. The lyric, 'And they're singing like a bluebird inside a cage' is a reference to the renowned Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. This place is considered a stepping stone for many up and coming acts in the city. The musicians who have success at Bluebird tend to make it big in the music world.
     I would have liked to hear Brown's impact on the song on more than just the backing vocals, but other than that, 'Congregation' is another solid track.

4.) What Did I Do?/God As My Witness

     This is the Austin, Texas inspired song on 'Sonic Highways' and Austin is a great city to cover because the music scene is so eclectic and is continuing to grow as one of the premier music destinations in the United States. Austin started off as one of the big cities for blues musicians, some of which included B.B. King, Ray Charles and Janis Joplin.
     Unfortunately, this song doesn't capture the magic that Austin has, even with a solid solo by guitarist Gary Clark Jr. The song opens up with piano, which is interesting because that is one of the instrument you don't tend to hear on a Foo Fighters song. The combination of the piano with the acoustic guitar do create various emotional peaks throughout the song, but the sudden halts in momentum were distracting and didn't help with the song's overall quality.
     'What Did I Do?' was a decent filler track, but nothing spectacular.

5.) Outside

Eagles guitartist Joe Walsh
featured on 'Outside'.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.
     'Outside' is the Los Angeles inspired song on the album and it features Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh.
     When I listened to this song, the lyrics speak two different things. One is the cliche that people will travel to Los Angeles in order to chase and capture their dreams. The other might be about a person trying to lett go of their inner doubts and inhibitions in order to close to another person. Obviously the latter to me sounds more relatable and authentic, especially when Grohl sings in the chorus, 'I wanna get outside, baby, I wanna get outside of me!'.
     The highlight of the song has to be Walsh's guitar solo because it adds such a unique texture following the breakdown between Hawkins on drums and bassist Nate Mendel.

6.) In The Clear

     'In The Clear' is the New Orleans inspired song on the album and features the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. With lyrics like, 'When rains starts coming down, as heavy in the air. You can find me dancing with spirits in the air', it can possibly be interpreted as a reference to the city's struggles from Hurricane Katrina and having to rebuild the city for years after the natural disaster.
     It has a great hook, but my disappointment is that it sounds like a standard Foo Fighters song and doesn't include many jazz influences that the city is well known for. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band adds several instruments and echoing chorus singers during the song's bridge, but these sounds are completely overpowered by the combination of the Foo Fighters' electric guitars and Grohl's roaring vocals.
     Some people will be fine with that, but I personally wanted to hear more from the guest of this song, since it's supposed to showcase what New Orleans music has to offer.

7.) Subterranean

Death Cab For Cutie singer Ben Gibbard
featured on 'Subterranean'.
Photo Courtesy of NPR.
     This is the Seattle inspired song on 'Sonic Highways' and I first believed that it would be grunge influenced, since Seattle is the birthplace of grunge music. Grohl's previous band, Nirvana, along with other acts like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains pushed Seattle and its respective grunge movement into the mainstream consciousness during the 1990s.
     However, this song features guest vocals from Ben Gibbard, the lead singer for alternative pop act Death Cab For Cutie. No, we didn't get grunge. Instead, 'Subterranean' opens up with a soft acoustic guitar and is possibly the quietest song on the album.
     Personally, I didn't feel that the song went anywhere musically and had limited peaks and valleys that failed to serve as an emotional connection. Overall, 'Subterranean' was definitely not among my favorites from 'Sonic Highways'.

8.) I Am A River

Singer Kristeen Young
featured on 'I Am A River'. 
     The final song on the album is the New York City inspired song and features singer-songwriter Kristeen Young as a guest vocalist and Tony Visconti as the architect of a string arrangement.
     'I Am A River' was the longest song on the album, lasting for over seven minutes, but Grohl's vocals felt so earnest that I was emotionally connected with what he was trying to convey. An ambient intro leads to a gradual buildup of sound that leads to a subdued chorus. Grohl and Young beautifully combine their voices in the chorus to continuously sing, 'I Am A River'.
     Unlike several of the previous songs, this perfectly captured how to grab a listener emotionally and being able to take them on a journey. Gorgeous violin playing from Visconti closes the song and the album mixed with slightly distorted guitars.

RATING:

3.5/5

     'Sonic Highways' was meant to serve as a 'love letter to America' by showcasing all of the great musical influences that this country has to offer. The Foo Fighters brought in subtle moments where country, psychedelic, and blues music were all brought to add to the band's traditional sound. That being said, they could have expanded more in those areas by making those moments stand out more and allowing them to make more of an impact on the individual songs, instead of primarily being subtle additions.
     This album is a typical Foo Fighters album of arena ready rock music that contains great hooks, earnest lyrics, and a sense of emotional connectivity. And that's NOT a bad thing. It would have been great to see more musical experimentation by the band, perhaps having songs produced by individuals of those respective cities instead of 'Wasting Light' producer Butch Vig, but the album is somewhat unique enough to stand on its own.
     'Wasting Light' was a fantastic record because they rediscovered their inner grunge influences that they had left behind with 'The Colour and The Shape'. Those two records demonstrate the band's strengths and continue to be their best pieces of work. But 'Sonic Highways' is a damn good rock album. And once I see their 'Sonic Highways' documentary series, I will probably appreciate this album even more.

FAVORITE THREE SONGS:

1.) The Feast And The Famine                2.) I Am A River          3.) Something From Nothing

What do YOU think about the new Foo Fighters album, 'Sonic Highways'? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Leave a comment below or tweet me your comment on Twitter @ConnorGlowacki.

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