Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways (2014)

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Dave Grohl has become a beloved punching bag, the every-day rocker in an era when such things are increasingly difficult to find. He gets no credit for that, I suspect because the Foo Fighters are so richly anachronistic — and, even more, because of his earlier association with the often-overrated Nirvana.

So, when he came up with an undeniably intriguing idea for an album and documentary series — to take his band and a film crew to a series of American cities, telling their stories and making new music along the way — it seemed like an opportunity for Grohl to make good.

Only Sonic Highways ends up as an honorable failure more than a moment of consolidation, an idea that makes better television than it does musical sense. The fault, of course, lies with Grohl. He simply asked more of himself than the Foo Fighters, or his own determinedly middle-class muse, could deliver.

It’s not the idea. Visiting places like New Orleans, Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville and Chicago, soaking up the local culture, stories and history, then turning that into the latest segment of a television program holds up fine. It’s the secondary challenge Grohl sets up for himself of distilling that information on the fly, and recorded a new site-specific song at each stop along the way. Never a first-class writer, Sonic Highways often finds itself the narrative victim of a deadline pressure cooker.

Dave Grohl is simply far more enthusiastic, and you probably already knew this, than he is inspired. Still, you find yourself, in particular if you’re of a certain age, wishing him well. After all, in the way he’s celebrated the legacy that surrounds him — from Paul McCartney and Stevie Nicks in Sound City to Joe Walsh and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on Sonic Highways — Grohl presents as a much-needed next-gen curator in a period of willful, even celebrated ignorance.

In the end, however, it’s easier to pull for the Foo Fighters than to actually like anything here. The easy cadence of singing then screaming, settling into a melodic reverie then exploding into jagged riffs, grows just as tiresome as the drive-by footnotes that populate the lyrics here.

Sonic Highways — the album — is ultimately done in by Sonic Highway, the show.

The concept doesn’t translate, because the Foo Fighters are still the Foo Fighters. As a function of premium cable, that means a video of their latest thrown-together song at the end of an episode where, say, Buddy Guy had earlier shared ageless wisdom. On the album, however, we get none of that cool preamble. As such, there are times — and the Preservation Hall song, somehow, is one of them — where you struggle to discern how the guests fit into the song at all. Walsh’s solo feels flown in, like a patch job.

And so, Sonic Highways isn’t the concept album it could have been. Instead, it just feels like a marketing ploy. Or, worse, a product tie in. That the Foo Fighters are gifted at stadium rock remains undeniable. They simply didn’t let this project challenge them musically and narratively to the degree that it could have. To the degree that it should have. They emerged, somehow, the same.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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