Last year when Dave Grohl was talking about Sonic Highways, he said that the album was going to be recorded in a way that no one has done before. Apparently he has decided it’s a good idea to start tempting fate.
I’m trying to work out what was done on this album that hasn’t been done before.
Was it the album being recorded in multiple studios or in different cities?
U2, The Black Keys and numerous other bands have done that.
Was he referring to the making of a documentary about the recording process?
Mastodon, The Living End, and numerous other bands have done that.
Was it the album being an homage to the history of American music?
Considering how music works, a large amount of bands have done that regarding their countries and regions, knowingly or not. However, I don’t deny that that is debatable, or that I’m grasping at straws.
Whilst Sufjan Stevens likely did it as a way to attract attention, his 50 states project produced two albums, but that wasn’t about the history of American music.
Maybe Grohl was referring to the scope of the project, which ends up covering an amazingly miniscule eight cities with a different song recorded in each.
That’s more due to the limitations of the album format than anything, as well as time.
Maybe he was referring to the pairing of the documentary about American music with the recording of an homage to American music.
If that is the case, I don’t think it has been done before, but that has little to do with the recording process. If it has been done, please let me know.
Anyway, to the surprise of no one, Sonic Highways fails to deliver in regards to that statement and mostly sounds like a standard Foo Fighters album. It has a bunch of hard rockers and a few slower ballad-esque tracks. The lyrics do seem more intelligent, if cliché, than usual which is a nice change of pace.Also, the songs feel a little less anthemic than usual. I feel that with what they were going for on this album, it’s far more appropriate.
There is minor influence from other genres and bands in the music, sometimes heard as a small funk passage or southern rock riff. However, the band mostly plays it safe and sticks with the traditional Foo Fighters sound. As they’re not spreading their wings here, the minor differentiations can come off as a bit forced.
All the songs have a musical guest from the city they were recorded in, but it’s difficult to hear what the musical guests add to each song, aside from “In the Clear”, with Preservation Hall Jazz Band overtly adding extra melody and texture to a relatively straightforward song and “I Am A River”, which uses soaring strings arranged by Tony Visconti to punctuate its final section; something that has, at this stage, been done to death but still manages to work very well here. Unfortunately for the most part, the guests are negligible at best.
It would’ve been beneficial if they used the recording and mastering techniques that each studio they recorded in normally use, which really would’ve brought out a lot more of what they were trying to achieve. It might’ve made the songs all sound different to each other, but it would’ve made the album thematically far more cohesive. Instead, all the songs have the same production work on them.
I don’t fault Butch Vig for this. He has his style and it works with Foo Fighters. At the same time, I fault Butch Vig for this as he probably should have pushed for allowing each studio and city to be more pervasive throughout the songs. Maybe he did. Who knows?
I’m also not a fan of how loud Sonic Highways can be at times and feel that it undermines how enjoyable the album can be.
Before someone thinks I’m criticisng the loudness for the sake of it, hear me out.
Hearing music as clearly as possible is important. If the dynamics are getting crushed for the sake of loudness, it affects the quality of the music being heard and doesn’t allow it to sound as good as it can. Loudness has impact because it can cause music to blast into your ears whilst distorting what you’re hearing. It comes off as compensating for a set of songs that may not be as good as they could have been. A band can achieve better impact on their records by letting the songs breathe.
Maybe the whole project was an excuse to justify a weak album.
That’s been done before plenty of times before as well.
I like Foo Fighters quite a lot. However, I don’t think they’re a good band. They’ve managed to write some good songs but a lot of average ones as well.
Over time, they have gradually improved and I do believe their best work is yet to come. However, Sonic Highways feels more like a misstep than a progression. It sounds more like Foo Fighters recording an album with some guests than anything else. Had the different recording and mastering techniques of each studio been incorporated, the guests featured more prominently to bring something more to each of the songs or Foo Fighters deviated more from their song template it would’ve been closer to sounding like Foo Fighters making an homage to American music.
Maybe the album will gain merit with me in a few years. For now, it is a Foo Fighters album with a few extra bells and whistles.