Lovers of rock ‘n’ roll can we be honest with ourselves for a second? We’re not going to into Sonic Highways unbiased.
We all have this affinity for the Foo Fighters. We love the fact they play rock ‘n’ roll and they play it with passion. We overlook their weaknesses – their lyrical content isn’t Dylan-esque in nature and their stuff can get repetitive pretty fast. But, damn it, have you seen them perform? They’re awesome and we can’t deny them their place at the throne of rock royalty.
Then there’s Dave Grohl. Is he the coolest man on the face of the planet? Quite possibly. Who doesn’t love Dave? He seems like a genuine dude, who’s as big a music nerd as the rest of us. He has this everyman quality about him – he’s the type of guy who’d have a beer with you and debate the merits of Zeppelin’s influence on heavy metal. You know who doesn’t love Dave Grohl? People who hate puppies, ice cream and all things great on this earth.
Then’s there the concept behind Sonic Highways – each song was recorded in a different city, featured a different guest artist indigenous to where the song was recorded and the lyrical content is based on the musical history of the city. Then they made a kick-ass series on HBO about it.
So, it’s an arduous task to review a new Foo Fighters record. But, we’re going to try and be as objective as humanly possible, breaking the album down track-by-track.
Sonic Highways Track-by-Track Breakdown
Something From Nothing (featuring Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick): This is an odd choice for an opening track — it’s slow, chugging and pretty bland. However, around the 2:37 mark, the song takes a definite and much-needed left turn into a more fast-paced rock session. The good and bad cancel each other out on this track and ultimately, it’s a forgettable track and definitely not the most logical choice to open a record with.
Feast and the Famine (featuring Bad Brains): This is more like it. It makes perfect sense that this track, recorded in Grohl’s hometown area of D.C., is one of the most dynamic songs on the entire record. As evidenced on the HBO doc, Grohl really wanted to craft a song that paid homage to the D.C.-area punk scene he adored and then cut his teeth in. While no one will mistake this for a Bad Brains song, “Feast and the Famine” has the driving back beat any good punk song worth its salt has. Grohl’s roaring vocals on the chorus combined with ferocious speed of the song complement each other wonderfully. This is definitely the best song on the record.
Congregation (featuring Zac Brown): Lyrically, this is one of the more interesting cuts on the record as there’s a lot of clever winks and nods to the musical history of Nashville, where the song was recorded. Zac Brown’s guitar work and Taylor Hawkins piston-like drumming really kick some serious, serious ass here. The end of song breakdown works a lot better here than on “Something From Nothing.” It is a little weird having two similar breakdowns within the first three songs on the record leaves though.
What Did I Do/God As My Witness (featuring Gary Clark, Jr.): This is a bit of an uneven track that has some absolutely fantastic elements, but also some “round peg in a square hole” moments. The “first half” of the track, “What Did I Do” features some blazing guitar work from one of the current gods of guitar, Gary Clark Jr. Seriously, this guy is beyond Thunderdome amazing, go check him out. Clark’s work is complemented, oddly enough, by Hawkin’s cymbal work, which may be the first time this reviewer has ever commented on someone playing cymbals. However, Grohl’s vocals just don’t match the electric nature of this half of the song. The vocals are too sing-songy, too lighthearted for their own good. Then we transition to the “God As My Witness” section. This is supposed to be an epic and grandiose section of the song and sometimes it is — when Grohl & Co. sing the chorus of “God as my witness it’s going to heal my soul tonight” it sends chills up your spine. However, there’s something missing here, a little bit of magic that you need to make something epic. The effort is there, but the execution is not.
Outside (featuring Joe Walsh): Around the 3:30-ish mark, this song takes a bit of musical strange trip. It allows for some reverbed, spaced out guitar work which underscored by a thudding bass with some keyboard work filling in the edges. Then it breaks into a dueling guitar solo battle. This is something you’re not expecting from a Foos song, so it was a really nice addition to an otherwise solid yet unmemorable track. This is one you shouldn’t sleep on.
In the Clear (featuring Preservation Jazz Hall Band): Solid song, but a waste of guest talent. Preservation Jazz Hall Band is sick, absolutely sick. So it’s disappointing that the band wasn’t given more more of a spotlight on this song. Imagine giving a full brass sound to Foo Fighters – no I’m talking about making them a ska band, I mean imagine giving the song a real E Street Band vibe. It would’ve been amazing. Instead Pres Hall merely underscores the chorus resulting in we got a solid, but predictable cut that has too much of a resemblance to “Congregation.”
Subterranean (featuring Ben Gibbard): It’s rare to describe a Foo song as “lush and atmospheric” but this is probably as close as you’re going to get. Really surprised at this one, it’s my second favorite tune off the album and showcases a new shade of Foo.
I Am A River (featuring Tony Visconti): Complete with full orchestration this is definitely a big send-off track for Sonic Highways. While it does have a lot of drama surrounding it, it’s not a song you can latch onto. The repetitive chorus of “I Am the River” just really is overkill. Again, solid track that makes its point, but isn’t the big resonating piece it was intended to be.
Sonic Highways is a strong record. Is it the second coming of The Colour and the Shape? Absolutely not. Does it break out of the ho-humness of the past few Foo records? In this reviewer’s opinion it does. Sonic Highways at its worst is still very listenable. We’re never brought into an abyss of awful audio abomination. No, the songs that “don’t work” are still pretty decent, but they aren’t going to stick to your ribs. When this record is good, it is damn good rock ‘n’ roll and that’s all we can hope from Foo Fighters.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Bill Bodkin is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. He can be read weekly on Trailer Tuesday and Singles Party, weekly reviews on Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Law & Order: SVU and regular contributions throughout the week with reviews and interviews. His goal is to write 500 stories this year. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English and currently works in the world of political polling. He’s the reason there’s so much wrestling on the site and is beyond excited to be a Dad this coming December. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom