Vinyl Special – Sonic Highways, by Foo Fighters

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Released November 10, 2014

42 min, 3 sec

When a band has been around as long as the Foo Fighters, they reach a point where it’s no longer enough to just write songs and put out albums. In recent years, starting with the recording of Wasting Light, the band has taken on an identity of protectors, so to speak, of classic rock and roll. Wasting Light was recorded entirely on analog tapes, with very little of the album’s production done digitally. The album even shipped with each copy holding a piece of the master tapes used to record the album. Promotion centered around the album’s “old-school” approach to its music, and Dave Grohl started a subtle anti-digital campaign, both through his interviews extolling the virtues of analog recording and his love letter to Sound City Studios with the 2013 documentary Sound City. Grohl was on a mission to ensure the Foo Fighters would be remembered for more than being the kings of radio rock, and that mission continued with Sonic Highways.

Sonic Highways is the band’s eighth studio album, and second with its current five-piece lineup. Rather than record at Grohl’s home, in his garage, as Wasting Light had been, Grohl chose eight iconic American cities, and took the band on tour through them. Eight cities, eight weeks, eight songs. Each song was written and recorded in that city, within the span of the single week they spent there, with no touch-ups until the project was over and in the mixing and mastering stage. Grohl himself did not write and record his lyrics until the very last day when he could, taking inspiration from each city and the people he met, the places he went, the memories he gained. The entire project was documented as part of the HBO series Sonic Highways, serving a dual purpose of making-of documentary and look at the legendary music communities all over America.

The eight songs (recorded in Chicago, IL, Arlington, VA [represented by Washington, D.C.], Nashville, TN, Austin, TX, Joshua Tree, CA [represented by Los Angeles], New Orleans, LA, Seattle, WA, and New York City, NY) each feature a guest from that city (Rick Nielsen, Pete Stahl & Skeeter Thompson, Zac Brown, Gary Clark, Jr., Joe Walsh, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Gibbard, and Tony Visconti & Kristeen Young, respectively). The guest contributions are more apparent in the documentary episodes for each song, as the contributions are either instrumental or as backing vocals – none as prevalent as Bob Mould’s guest vocals on Wasting Light’s “Dear Rosemary,” for instance. As such, it can be hard to tell what each one’s contributions are, with the exception of “In the Clear” and its incredibly prevalent horn riffs all throughout the song, courtesy of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

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It’s a hell of a gimmick and a selling point. The promotion from the HBO series certainly helped, as well. But one thing the Foo Fighters have never been about is overshadowing their own music, and Sonic Highways is, like Wasting Light, a powerful, straightforward rock album that stays true to everything that Dave Gorhl likes to shout from the rooftops about, while demonstrating that straight-ahead, alternative rock is still alive with the Foo Fighters. Their guests’ contributions never stand in the way of the core quintet, and each song is recognizably a Foo Fighters song, guitars all the way, powerful drums, and heartfelt lyrics all throughout that, while not really making it obvious which song was recorded in which city, clearly show that Grohl was influenced by his travels across the country, to bathe in the history of American music.

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The album’s packaging, however, is still pretty gimmicky. Sonic Highways, on vinyl, comes with one of nine different covers that combine to form one large mural. The outer eight covers each focus on a different city; my cover is for “The Feast and the Famine,” recorded in Arlington, very close to Washington, D.C., hence the Washington Monument. The center cover instead features the logo the band uses for the release, that of a large building in the shape of an 8, doubling as an infinity symbol. When ordering from the official Foo Fighters website, one could choose a cover; any other retailer ships them out at random. The full mural is a great work of art, and really conveys the feeling of connectivity that the album was meant to foster.

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A pre-order bonus from the official Foo Fighters store was the “Two-Headed Dog” flexi-disc. Originally written by Roky Erickson, the song was performed by the band in Austin, TX, as they worked on “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness,” in the original Austin City Limits studio, and has yet to be released digitally, making the studio version exclusive to this flexi-disc.

I love these things. This particular one furthers the band’s dedication to keeping the virtues of vinyl and old-school music alive, and it’s just such a silly bonus thing to include. Flexi-discs are ridiculous. This one sounds awful, with a loud, persistent hiss throughout the entire song, but that’s what happens when you press a record on a piece of cardboard. The song itself is nice and clear, at least.

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Sonic Highways is a great album, continuing the Foo Fighters’ late-era upswing, as they settle into their new role as musical historians, albeit in an aggressive, occasionally obnoxious, grandstanding manner. But that’s fine with me – Dave Grohl can say whatever he wants about how music is made today, so long as he continues to put his money where his mouth is with albums like this that show that he really hasn’t lost his touch.

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