***Please keep in mind I wrote this just after the album was released, then purposely waited to post this until after all the episodes of Sonic Highways aired once I realized the show helps the album come across. I also wanted to wait to see if I could find all the album covers before posting, but that has become a tough task – which was finally completed March 16, 2015.***
Sonic Highways is a tough pill to swallow. Writing as a huge Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl fan, this album is simply put, their worst album to date. The band’s eighth studio album bites off way more than it could, and should chew. Spending a week in a city and then writing a new, original song during that time sounds like an ambitious idea. The sad part is it’s not; it’s not even an original idea because Dave Grohl and company have done something similar before, just last year with Sound City.
The idea behind Sonic Highways is exploring America’s musical roots and heritage by taking a journey to multiple cities that have helped shape it. With stops in Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York City. There are eight songs on the album, with a song written and recorded in each aforementioned city. While in each city Grohl interviews various musicians, producers, label heads, club owners, record store owners and historians to gain knowledge about the city’s music scene. From those interviews lyrics are directly written, and the music is written inspired by the sound each city is known for. Foo Fighters are also joined by “local” musicians on each song, who contribute both musically and vocally. These guest spots range from Joe Walsh of Eagles fame to Grohl’s former band mates in Scream; Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Gary Clark, Jr. and Zac Brown.
There is also a HBO series that chronicles the band’s journey around the country writing and recording Sonic Highways. The series airs its episodes in the track order of the album. The show is very well done and put together, but the quality of the episodes in terms of enjoyment, at least to me, are hit or miss. One thing that stands outs the most though, to me, is that it should have been left as a documentary, film or miniseries; however you want to classify the eight part show; an album was not needed or necessary. It would stand fine on its own, without having an album or any new songs attached to it. In regards to the album, the tv show is a must watch in order to fully comprehend the album. After watching the episode for each city and then listening to the song for each city, the song makes complete sense. Otherwise the song sounds like complete gibberish and you’re left shaking your head thinking ‘what the hell was that?’ Of course all that would change if Sonic Highways turned out good.
This album seems forced, contrived and rushed to me; musically and lyrically it’s just not there. And because it was recorded in multiple studios with very little manipulation to make it sound as if it was recorded in one place, the sound is all over the place. I get the concept of the album, but the process that makes it unique also makes it not flow as an album. Yes, I know many bands record portions of albums in different studios, but rarely is every song on the album laid down somewhere different for the sake of consistency. The lyrics are weak, cheesy and cliché. With lines like “One Heart Now Broken In Two,” “I’ve Been Throwing Knives – Just To See Where They Land,” “There You Go Again – Putting Words Into My Mouth – This One’s For You To Know – And For Me To Find Out,” “I’m Lost – Deliver Me – I Crossed The River Finally – God As My Witness – Yeah It’s Gonna Heal My Soul Tonight,” “Hear The Sirens Screaming,” “Nothing Left Within – I’ve Been Mined,” “The Channels Changing – The Heart Is Racing – The Soul Is Yearning – The Coal Is Burning – The Embers Start A Fire.”
Musically it faces the same problem as being recorded in multiple studios. Because every song is inspired by a different type of music, every song has its own sound, which strays from the Foo Fighters sound way too much. This is not even bringing up the fact that the opening track, “Something From Nothing” blatantly rips off the Dio song “Holy Diver.” This album makes the case for those who feel a band shouldn’t evolve, alter or change their sound.
The length of some songs also does not help the case for the album being good. The closing song, “I Am A River” is over seven minutes long. Five of the eight songs clock in at over five minutes, with a sixth being 11 seconds shy of the five-minute mark. These songs are just too long, and there is no need for them being that long. The only reason I can see is to make a longer album because there would only be eight songs on it. But long for the sake of long does not make a song, or album, what is most important; good.
Track listing (with City and guest musician after each title):
- Something From Nothing – Chicago – Rick Nielsen
- The Feast And The Famine – Washington D.C. – Pete Stahl & Skeeter Thompson
- Congregation – Nashville – Zac Brown
- What Did I Do?/God As My Witness – Austin – Gary Clark, Jr.
- Outside – Los Angeles – Joe Walsh
- In The Clear – New Orleans – Preservation Hall Jazz Band
- Subterranean – Seattle – Ben Gibbard
- I Am A River – New York City – Tony Visconti & Kristeen Young
Now that the review is out-of-the-way (one of only handful I’ve ever done on this blog), here are the details about the vinyl pressing of Sonic Highways. Every copy is pressed on 180 gram black vinyl and comes housed in a gatefold jacket. There are 10 different covers made for this album, nine of which are stand alone covers that join together to form the entire cover artwork for the album. Each city has its own, unique cover, and to make the artwork complete there is a center piece entitled the “Forever” cover, which is not based on any real life city. Lastly, there is a composite cover, which has the complete album art all on one cover. From the total artwork here is the placement of each separate city cover going left to right – top, middle, bottom: Seattle – top left. Chicago – top middle. New York City – top right. Los Angeles – middle left. “Forever” cover – middle middle. Washington D.C. – middle right. Austin – bottom left. New Orleans – bottom middle. Nashville – bottom right.
The artwork inside the gatefold, on the back of the jacket and the full color printed dust sleeve included with the record (record itself comes in a poly lined paper dust sleeve) are all the same no matter which cover you get. The printed dust sleeve has the lyrics printed on one side and travel bumper sticker for each city on the reverse side. There is a hype sticker affixed to the top right of every cover. A download card is included with every copy, but as of writing this, two days after the album’s release, I still can’t get it to work. After entering the website where you redeem the download code, nothing happens. Internet Explorer re-directs you to a Google search result page and Firefox says the server does not exist. But the record itself sounds great, which is the most important thing. *Edit – One week after the album’s release I still can’t get the download code that came with the record to redeem as the website still can’t load/the server does not exist.” **Edit #2 – Upon further investigation I discovered that you need to have the latest version of Java installed in order for the download website to even appear. I no longer have Java installed on my computer, and haven’t for years, because it leads to nothing but problems like freezing and slow load times. This was found out through no help from the Foo Fighters camp, Sony/RCA/Roswell Records or the website hosting the download (myplaydirect), I had to find out through various, unaffiliated, message boards.
After the first single from Sonic Highways debuted, the official pre-order for the album changed, and changed drastically. When the pre-order was first launched shipping was somewhat reasonable, at about $7 for a single copy of the record, which obviously increased with each additional record you had in your order, but maxed out at around $20 had you ordered all nine different cover variants of the album. At this time you could still select which cover variant you wanted, and the official pre-order was the only place you had the option of choosing what cover you wanted, prior to album being released that is.
The pre-order launched very early, sometime in August, a few months ahead of the release date in November, and at the time there was no free, exclusive bonus item incentive to pre-order. Once the first single came out in mid October, the official pre-order drastically changed. A free, exclusive bonus item was now also included in all pre-orders of Sonic Highways on any format or bundle option, which was a 7” flexi disc featuring an exclusive song; a cover of “Two-Headed Dog” originally done by Roky Erickson. Every pre-order prior to the announcement of the flexi was guaranteed to receive a copy of it, every pre-order after the announcement was a “while supplies last” situation.
At this time the shipping charges dramatically increased, doing so by three times what it cost initially. Shipping for one record now stood at $20 and change, which everyone knows is a complete rip-off. For a few weeks you could still select which cover variant you wanted, and god help you if you wanted to buy all nine as shipping came to over $50. A few weeks later the option to choose which cover you wanted was gone; if you ordered it at this point you would receive one of the nine different covers selected at random. It was also at this time that the composite cover art, which had all nine separate covers combined into one image, was announced, which brought the cover variant total up to 10.
To make matters worse, there were massive shipping delays with some people’s pre-orders from the official site, as apparently there were only two people packaging the orders and one person (one of the two packaging) making post office runs dropping off the packages. Yes, you heard right, an operation of this scale for an album release of this magnitude was handled by only two people, and they didn’t even have pickup from the post office set up, something any single family house owner/renter can arrange free of cost. So in some cases you paid over $20 for shipping and didn’t get your pre-order on time (on or before release date).
I didn’t pre-order Sonic Highways, but given the chance to go back I probably would to get the flexi. By not giving in to the extortionate shipping prices, I saved myself close to $50. I bought over half of the covers at my local record store, which charged $19 for the record, $5 cheaper than the official pre-order charged. I then bought the rest of the copies off ebay and discogs, for no more than $24 shipped for each one. So in the end I got all 10 cover variants for this record, saved a great deal of money in the process, but it took me over three months to do so. Obviously I missed out on the flexi because I didn’t pre-order, but I’m not kicking myself over missing it. The way I view the flexi is that it’s not something crucial to my collection because it’s not really a record, or anywhere close to other flexis I do have in my collection. The flexi is pressed/printed on thin card stock. But if I ever do decide to go after the flexi, I can take the money I saved by not pre-ordering the record and buy it, still spending the same amount I would have had I pre-ordered the album in the process. But there is no chance I will drop over $50 on the flexi, wouldn’t even spend $25 on it realistically.