The Foo Fighters are in a weird place.
Ok, ok, a platinum selling, non-legacy actual rock band in 2014 is in a weird place to begin with, but Foo Fighters got here in a kind of odd way. They’ve spent almost 20 years as a ubiquitous band most people like, but could never love. This seems somehow by design and circumstance; the Foo’s greatest strength (and a bit of a liability) is in their knack for no-frills alt rock that feels refreshing in contrast to whatever else is on alternative radio, but can grow stale over the course of a full album (this is why, despite their best efforts on Wasted Light, The Colour and the Shape, and There Is Nothing Left to Lose, the band lacks a true, career defining record). And whatever fights they win on radio get lost within their peer group; The Foos can’t help but sound less, say, inventive than The Black Keys, or not as cool/critically respected as Queens of the Stone Age. The tradeoff is they handily top their peers in commercial and industry viability, which isn’t nothing, but way less sexy looking.
Frontman Dave Grohl seems aware of this. Instead of fighting (ha) it, he’s kind of embraced his place as rock’s Good Ol’ Boy; he’ll gladly extol the virtues of “real music played by real people”, help induct someone into the Rock Hall of Fame, or jump head first into trad-rock collaborations, all while pulling a younger audience. It’s not that Dan Auerbach and Josh Homme refuse to play the Grammys, but if you want someone to grab a guitar and have the time of their life rubbing elbows with Tom Petty and Paul McCartney, Grohl’s your man.
All this brings us to Sonic Highways, a Foo Fighters multimedia project that is literally about the awe-inspiring power and legacy of American Rock and Roll. The pitch for the project is intriguing enough: the band and producer Butch Vig blast out to a famous music city in America (Chicago, Washington DC, Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, Seattle, LA, and New York), spend a week chatting with blues/rock icons, and use that time as inspiration while they cut a song in a legendary studio featuring a prominent local artist. It’s the logical next step after the Fighters “back to the shack” approach on Wasting Light and Grohl’s Sound City doc project.
If we’re grading by execution of concept, Sonic Highways gets a polite C+. The regional flourishes are there once you’re aware of them, but no one’s going call “Something from Nothing” the sound of Chicago, or attribute any element of “In the Clear” to New Orleans. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays on the latter, but without knowing who it is, the track just sounds like Foo Fighters doing a passable E Street impression. More to the point, Grohl’s songwriting ambition outstrips his capabilities, and the lyrics sound like those on any of his other albums with grafted-on local nods that read as Genius 101 work. The track by track guests contribute flavor more than definition; “Congregation” is a power-pop Foos single that happens to have Zac Brown guitar leads over it, and you’ll only parse Ben Gibbard or Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson’s backing vocals on “Subterranean” and “The Feast and the Famine” respectively after the fact.
That said, downplaying the guest contributions plays to Sonic Highway‘s favor. Instead of their standard approach of 12 or so songs packaged together, Sonic Highways aspires to be an end-to-end album with fairly ambitious songwriting. This leads to a baffling first few listens because typically Grohl and company deliver hooks and choruses with an expediency not seen outside Amazon Prime. That’s not quite the case here, where half the songs push the five minute mark, between extended intros, mid-song jams, and slow builds. In places like big ol hooky-but-hard-to-hate closer “I Am a River”, it works, but the spacey, Seattle indie-tinged dream pop of “Subterranean” doesn’t justify the length. The Foos aren’t strangers to four and a half minute runtimes, so even with occasional bloat here, Sonic Highways doesn’t strike out nearly as much as I thought it would.
And there is some high level Foos material here. “The Feast and The Famine” passes the Foo Fighters Big Rock Single Test: even though it explodes exactly when/where/how I expect it to, I cannot turn this fucker down (past winners: “Bridge Burning”, “Stacked Actors”, “No Way Back”). In fact, the compact, punk-y “The Feast and The Famine” would work infinitely better than turgid classic rock FM fodder “Something From Nothing” as an album opener. There are also textured moments here bring back sounds not heard from the band in awhile; the jangle on “Outside” could fit on There Is Nothing Left to Lose and the aforementioned “Subterranean” is a lovely if over-long update on “Floaty” from the group’s self-titled debut. And while “I Am a River” is an awe-inspiringly corny lighters-in-the-air closer, the opening is quite pretty, and the song embraces the fact that this has always been a corny band.
The blatant awfulness of “Something From Nothing” aside, everything on Sonic Highways offers at least one promising aspect. Even if its just some above and beyond guitar soloing on “Congregation” or “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” pulling off the combine-two-half-songs-and-hope-for-the-best strategy, it’s a decent album to hear in a sitting. It’s the album version of Interstellar: it’s an approachable, enjoyable bit of work that’s biggest downside is being far less brainy and important to listen to than it probably was to make. Three and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: The Foo Fighters tried to make an honest to God album that mostly, kind of works. Just skip the opener. 3.5/5