‘Highways’ is a road trip of a lifetime

Shortly after shooting last year’s documentary “Sound City”, Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl was inspired to further explore music and its stories.  Within this concept came their inspiration for the Foo Fighters eighth studio album titled “Sonic Highways”.  The concept is simple, come up with a list of cities that are either personally or culturally significant in the band’s influence.  So the band came up with Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle, and New York City.  In this tidy 48 minute record, the band gets to the point with the where and the whys of each track.  Every track was conceived, written, and recorded in each city. This made for a more personal effort than many can even claim.  The songs are a love letter to each city involved, and the recording process is documented in the miniseries currently airing on HBO.  For a review of this kind, the best way to do it is to break it down track by track.

Something For Nothing– Recorded in Chicago, Ill. — This song was recorded on location at local punk legend and producer of several legendary albums Steve Albini’s studio. This track kicks off the album in a brooding fashion and breaks out of its shell in its angst while describing the layered and colorful fabric of Chicago’s music background; the Chicago blues, the dawn of Rock n’ Roll, hip hop, jazz, and local punk. Along for the ride on this track is Rockford, Illinois’ own, Rick Nielson from legendary rock band, Cheap Trick. A nice kick off for the record.

The Feast and the Famine– Recorded in Arlington, Va. — Upon revisiting Grohl’s hometown, he dives into the roots and influences, as well as his own sprouting experiences with his first band called Scream. It covered the D.C. area music scene that explores everything from a local flavor known as ‘go-go’, to the punk scene born out of locally run Dischord Records. This song plinks out a stripped-down swing opening, then kicks into full throttle with location drops and Positive Mental Attitude (PMA).  The song also features many of the go-go performers on the track.

Congregation– Recorded in Nashville, Tenn. — This track was layed down in Zac Brown’s recording studio, which used to be the old Monument Records on music row.  This one fades into existence as the morning sun shines through the skylight that Grohl spotted while working on the song during his stay there. Grohl spoke with Nashville mainstays Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Tony Joe White, and Dolly Parton.  Country star Zac Brown was also featured, whose against-the-grain music got Grohl’s attention a year ago when Brown asked Grohl to produce their latest record.  Brown can be heard contributing his guitar work on this revival-like song with testimonials from people from the country music capital of America.

What Did I Do/God As My Witness– Recorded in Austin, Texas — Done in the very studio that Austin City Limits was shot at for over thirty years, this Queen-esque song came about from talking about the mini scene that started in the middle of the Texas delta.  A strange utopian oasis of freaks and seekers help make up a very vibrant and eclectic scene.  I’m talking about folks like Billy Gibbons, Willie Nelson, Jimmie Vaughn and lesser knowns like 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson and up-and-comer and amazing talent Gary Clark Jr. who kills it on lead guitar on this particular track.

Outside– Recorded outside of Los Angeles, Calif. — This brooding and darker track explores the early punk scene of LA which was experienced first hand by the band’s guitarist Pat Smear as a member of The Germs in the late 1970’s, plus the desert bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, and other gritty outsider bands who cut their teeth playing ‘generator shows’ in the desert.  Legendary James Gang and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh do some lead guitar work on this track which gave it more mystique and simplicity. Despite being a strong effort, I believe this is the weakest track on the record, which is interesting because it is still very well done.

In The Clear– Recorded in New Orleans, La. — This track was recorded at the Preservation Hall, a historical jazz venue in the French Quarter.  The jazz feel along with the other sounds that inhabit New Orleans make this track a fun one to listen to.  Lyrics that evoke the joy of the scene as well as the tragedy that struck ten years ago in the face of Hurricane Katrina.  But the song signifies how the city rises out of the ashes cautiously and without skipping a beat.  Inspired by artists like Dr. John, The Meters, and The Preservation Hall band themselves, this track paints a vivid picture and is well done.
Subterranean– Recorded in Seattle, Wash. — Bringing things back to the band’s roots, Grohl, along with Pat Smear and Nate Mendel retell their story from where it starts in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide which lit the spark for Grohl almost a year later to record the first self-titled Foo Fighters record and invite Smear and Mendel to join in touring with these songs.  Mendel, who was fresh out of Sunny Day Real Estate took on the challenge in the wake of Sunny Day’s breakup.  This lower tone and melodic song exercises the demons of Grohl as well as exploring the Pacific Northwest scene prior to and leading up to the Seattle scene of the 1990’s.  Bands like Heart, Death Cab For Cutie and others are profiled and Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie is featured on this track which is beautiful and haunting at the same time.

I Am A River– Recorded in New York City, N.Y. — The final track on this journey speaks of a body of water which in part runs underground.  A mighty force below a mighty city which has a great and storied history in just about every subject matter up to and including music.  From the beatnik coffee house folk, the Bowery punk scene, and the ever growing hip-hop scene, the Big Apple has a musical story to tell.  This song has a range of changes which makes it a great coda for the record.  Complete with a triumphant chorus, its bound to strike a chord for anyone who has risen up from adversity in their lives.  This track ends a perfect, yet abbreviated journey through the sonic highways of our musical heritage.

Produced by friend and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ collaborator Butch Vig, this was a very ambitious and original concept for an album.  Despite this writer’s strong opinion that Minneapolis should have been included in the round-up, it’s still a strong cross-section of the tapestry of American roots.  The record went off without a hitch with tracks being released little by little since mid-October and the premiere of the documentary on HBO.  Since then, “Something For Nothing” has hit number one on the Billboard rock charts, the miniseries is well received and preorders smashed sales records.  Since its release November 10th, the album’s sold 190,000 copies and counting as well as appeared at number two in the Billboard Hot 200 chart as well as a just-announced world tour of which Saint Paul is a stop in August of 2015.  I find this record to be yet another step up in their musical talents and genuine ability to transcend their punk pop roots into bona-fide artists that I believe will fall into the ranks of some of the best in rock n’ roll history.  This album gets 5 stars out of 5 from me, not denying I am a fan, but this record will go down in history as one of the classics.

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