One of the most popular bands in the world, the Foo Fighters, travel through America and with a little help from their friends along the way recorded “Sonic Highways”, one of the best records the band has released.
The blues, punk rock, Country, jazz, grunge, new wave, metal, glam rock… It’s hard to not hear more than one of these sounds in most pop-rock songs of today. Everyone is borrowing from everyone and even borrowing from the past itself when it comes to modern-day music. And that’s not a strange or necessarily bad thing. It’s been done before (blues-influenced rock & roll, bands fused metal and hip-hop etc.) and will probably be done again and again as music continues to evolve.
All the genres, all these influences, they all had to come from somewhere. The people, the society they live in, their happiness, their anger, their discontent, their desire to be different… all these factors can influence the way a sound is formed and how it develops and how far it will expand. The United States of America is a large country with many cities and many more genres and sub-genres of music and it really comes as no surprise that a lot of the popular music we listen to today came out of some of these cites and has influenced musicians the world over in their personal musical endeavours.
The Foo Fighters visited a number of these influential cities in America as they searched for new inspiration to record their latest album, an album that would celebrate 20 years of the bands existence. The band went on the road and toured around the US, from Chicago to Nashville to New Orleans in search of somewhere new, someone to inspire them and something to fuel their creativity. They visited eight cities, meeting tonnes of interesting musicians, producers, engineers, fans and legends and walked through some of the most iconic studios and venues in the history of American music. This musical reawakening resulted in an eight-part, music-documentary TV series on HBO aptly titled “Sonic Highways” and an album of the same name with songs that were written and recorded in each of the cities they visited.
“The environment in which you make a record ultimately influences the end result.” – Dave Grohl
The album “Sonic Highways” is, I feel, the best studio album that the Foo Fighters have recorded to date. I’m sure that has something to do with the whole idea behind the series and the album and how each city they stayed in, each studio they recorded in and every person they met played a crucial role in the album’s development. “The environment in which you make a record, ultimately influences the end result. Not just the studio, but the people and the history. I feel like if everyone knew more about the people and the places this music is made, they’d feel more connected to it,” says Dave Grohl at the beginning of the first episode and it’s probably this very fact that made me say “…the best studio album…” earlier. I gave the album a listen and while there were songs that intrigued me and there were a couple of tracks I’d repeat, it wasn’t until I watched the entire series that the songs had more meaning and the album felt more complete as a whole.
The band start off in Chicago where they discover the blues, pay a visit to the mecca of Country music, Nashville, get in touch with their inner selves at a ranch just outside of L.A., play with a jazz band in New Orleans and end their tour in New York. Along the way Dave Grohl not only interviews people who were vital elements in the forging of a specific sound in a specific city (for example Buddy Guy in Chicago, Zac Brown in Nashville or Kyuss in L.A.), but is inspired by the history of each city and/or studio to write songs along the way. A number of the musicians Grohl interviewed recorded vocals or instruments with the Foo Fighters on the album, while legendary producer, Butch Vig, (who worked on Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album for example) made all the music and lyrics into one cohesive and masterfully mixed record.
Each of the eight songs on the album has a depth to it, both lyrically and musically and styles that vary from blues-rock infused with funky keyboards on the opening track, “Something From Nothing”, to pop-rock with a brass section on “In the Clear” to a full on string orchestra (the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra) in “I Am a River”. The songs explore inner-turmoil, social issues, the desire to stand out from the crowd, faith, hope and believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe in…no real eye-opening subject matter to be honest, but as I said, the lyrics and the music on this album do stand out as some of the best work the band has made in their 20-year long career (the first Foo Fighters album was recorded in 1994). It helps, of course, when you have some of the best musicians in America record on the album as well… Rick Nielson (the colourful guitarist from Cheap Trick) recorded baritone guitar on the track “Something From Nothing”, Country music’s young gun; Zac Brown, lent his vocals and lightning fast guitar playing to “Congregation”; “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” features the soulful blues of Gary Clarke Jr.; rock legend Joe Walsh (guitarist from the Eagles) gives “Outside” one of the best guitar solos on the album and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band add a dynamic brass emphasis to the track “In the Clear”.
And while the album and the series are closely related, the songs have their own freedom, their own expression and while a common theme may run throughout the album, the songs are not just chronicles of the cities they visited. This isn’t an album that has eight songs that describe eight cities. It’s a genuine Foo Fighters album that was just influenced in a different way to any of their previous studio albums. The band members themselves were influenced by each city and the story each city told and could all relate on a personal level to the tracks they wrote. Dave Grohl (vocals and guitar) was born in Washington D.C., bassist Nate Mendel grew up in Seattle, Pat Smear (guitar) is a Los Angeles native; lead guitarist Chris Shiflett was influenced by the blues of Chicago; keyboardist Rami Jaffee grew up listening to pianist Allen Toussaint from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Taylor Hawkins (drummer) was in awe of his rock idol Joe Walsh when they recorded together in L.A..
“We decided to do something…we’ve never done before.”
– Dave Grohl
So don’t think of this album as ‘just a soundtrack to the TV show’ which, ok, in a way it is, but it’s so much more as well. As Grohl says at the beginning of episode one (Chicago) “So for our 20th anniversary we decided to do something that would make the creative process new again, something we’ve never done before,” and so they did. They told a story. A story of eight cities and countless influences, a story of one genre and many sub-genres, a story of one band and five musicians. We are shown a glimpse of the past and how it influences the present.
I can’t say I have ever been a truly devout Foo Fighters fan. I know the albums, I know the hits, I’d pay to see them live, but I never really gave them the attention they probably deserved…until now. Grohl’s idea worked… I found out about the people and the places where the music was made, and I now feel more connected to it. If you are a music fan, watch the TV show. If you are a rock music fan, “Sonic Highways” will take you on a trip across America and along the way you’ll meet interesting people, hear new sounds, feel unexpected emotions and maybe, like me, you’ll rediscover the essence of what rock & roll really is all about.
Note For Note Blog Album Rating: 4/5 Rock Stars
Stand-out tracks: “Congregation”, “Outside” and “I Am a River.”
Get the album now via iTunes or check out your local record store for a vinyl or CD version. You could also watch the show to get an even better picture of how the album was recorded, follow the Foo Fighters on Twitter or check out the video below for the first single that was released off of the album, “Something From Nothing”: