The Listening Post: November 2015

Revisiting some old friends.

  • Sonic HighwaysFoo Fighters. Let’s face it, it’s pretty much impossible not to like Dave Grohl. He’s so unconcerned with being cool, he approaches his music with a huge smile and boyish enthusiasm, as if even now he can’t believe that this is how he lives his life, and he has always come across as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s nicest characters. He’s a good singer, a solid if unspectacular guitarist, and a drummer the likes of whom we haven’t seen since John Bonham sat behind the kit for Led Zeppelin. Also, he’s a punk rock kid who’s got Paul McCartney on his phone contact list. So it’s resolved: Dave Grohl is awesome. Then there’s his band. Foo Fighters have always been a band with plenty of chops. As amazing a drummer as Grohl is, his equal (and in some ways superior) is Taylor Hawkins. Guitarist Chris Shifflett is a top-notch lead guitar player, and bassist Nate Mendel provides a great bottom end. However, there’s little in Foo Fighters that can be called original or even particularly interesting. Many of their songs are solid, and their highlights (of which there are many) are among the best examples of rock music in the post-alternative era. But this all makes Sonic Highways that much more disappointing. The album is the “soundtrack” to an eight part documentary that Grohl did for HBO last year. The Foos traveled across the country and hit the biggest of the nation’s musical meccas to explore the evolution of the sound from each of those cities. They talked about blues, power pop, and punk in Chicago, Dixieland jazz in New Orleans, alternative rock in Seattle, etc. In each city, Grohl conducted interviews with musicians and producers, and then wrote the lyrics for these songs based on those interviews. It’s a great concept, but a failed execution. Grohl hit each of these cities like the fan that he is, but didn’t absorb any of the atmosphere. The music on Sonic Highways sounds like every other Foo Fighters album, despite the presence of guest stars like Gary Clark Jr., Rick Nielsen, and Joe Walsh. Of all the guests, only Walsh really makes his presence felt, dropping into “Outside” an elegant, atmospheric guitar solo that could have been lifted straight from James Gang Rides Again. Otherwise, the guests, even the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, get sucked into the band’s sound.

    Which wouldn’t be so bad if the sound was good. But on Sonic Highways Grohl has fully embraced his Enormodome tendencies. There isn’t a single song on the album that doesn’t seem like it was written specifically to be played in front of 80,000 punters at Wembley Stadium. The music is completely faceless, generic arena rock, barely distinguishable from Journey or Nickelback. Grohl still has a lot of punk rock kid in him, which makes this exercise in corporate rock somewhat baffling. This is music that sounds like it was dreamed up by men in suits sitting around a table. It’s almost cynical. Listen to “I Am A River” with your eyes closed and just try not to picture 80,000 lit cell phones being waved in the air at a football stadium. I don’t think it can be done. Notice how what was once passion (The Colour and the Shape‘s “Monkey Wrench”) has now become a cliché: the music is rising to a crescendo, time to start screaming the lyrics as if they actually mean something. For all the volume, speed, screaming, and thrash in these grooves the result is completely soulless. Grohl is the ultimate rock music fanboy, and Sonic Highways is a love letter to the cities that generated the music he loves, but it’s a love letter devoid of genuine emotion, as if it was written by a child painstakingly copying the love letters he found in his Dad’s dresser drawer, but not really knowing what the words mean. The songs from Sonic Highways will probably sound great in the Enormodome, but in the car or streaming through Spotify they sound banal and dull, and the band that has been flying the True Believer flag for rock music for twenty years now suddenly sound like the reason Nirvana had to exist.
    Grade: D
  • Crosseyed HeartKeith Richards. It’s been 23 years since the soul of the Rolling Stones has stepped out of his band’s shadow and released a solo album. In 1988 and 1992 Keith Richards proved that he could survive, and even thrive, without his musical brother Mick Jagger. Talk Is Cheap and Main Offender were loose, sloppy affairs that called up everything that was great about the Stones. More than two decades later, and ten years after the last Rolling Stones album, Keith’s done it again. Crosseyed Heart has an advantage over Keith’s previous solo efforts: he’s no longer stuck in a high-gloss production era. Now the drums sound more like drums and less like rifle shots, and the rough edges are allowed to show. It’s a better sound than the earlier albums, and a worthy successor in terms of song quality. What the album is missing is Mick Jagger’s vocals. Keith has always been a bit lacking in the vocal department; his best vocals are a soulful, excited bray, and add texture and color to the Stones. Who doesn’t love a good Keith track like “Happy” or “Before They Make Me Run”? But there’s a difference between being the spotlight kid on one or two songs and carrying an entire album. As studied and forced as Jagger’s vocals have become in the last twenty years, they’re still a far sight better than Keith’s. There’s also little doubt that Keith’s vocals have been helped by modern technology. Anyone who’s heard Keith speak, his voice a harsh, phlegm-filled rasp, would know that the singing here has been sweetened. It’s still rough, but he doesn’t sound like a man with encroaching emphysema. Musically, Crosseyed Heart is a winner. Keith has always been an advocate of the roll in rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s plenty of groove to be found here. “Heartstopper” and “Trouble” are terrific Stones-y rockers, “Love Overdue” is Richards’s best reggae track since It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s “Luxury”, “Blues In The Morning” resurrects the spirit of Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson, “Suspicious” is one of the best examples of Keith’s recent penchant for torch song balladeering. There’s also a terrific cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” that connects Keith to his influences in a way that hasn’t been heard since the days when the Stones were covering Robert Johnson. Maybe best of all is “Substantial Damage”, a great funk groove underpinning Keith’s speak-sing lyrics (“What’s that thing attached to your ear?/I’m talking to you but you don’t seem to hear/I’m paying for dinner and I might as well not be here” could have been lifted from a Jack White song.) There are some quibbles: the title track is fantastic, a finger-picked acoustic blues that sounds like Robert Johnson was reincarnated, but ends abruptly with Keith declaring “That’s all I got.” He should have taken some time to finish the song. “Illusion” sounds like a rewrite of Talk Is Cheap‘s vastly superior “Make No Mistake” with Norah Jones filling in for Sarah Dash. “Robbed Blind” is a not terribly interesting country ballad, though the pedal steel is lovely. Still, the album proves that there is songwriting and performing life still in Keith Richards. If he can steer Mick Jagger away from his desire to be “contemporary” and get him back to his roots, another Stones album could prove to be a real winner.
    Grade: B+
  • Dodge And BurnThe Dead Weather. Much like with The Raconteurs it seems a little unfair to call The Dead Weather “a Jack White side project”. It is that, but it’s surely just as much, if not more, of an Alison Mosshart side project. The singer for The Kills is the heart and soul of The Dead Weather. While the most famous musician in the band is sitting in the back, playing astonishingly good drums and taking the odd vocal turn, Mosshart is the strutting tiger that gives the band their strength. Dodge and Burn, recorded in fits and starts over the past couple of years, is the band’s best album yet. It maintains the Weather’s industrial Gothic blues sound, but is more easily accessible and more varied. “Three Dollar Hat” hints at rap, and “Lose The Right” has a reggae vibe, but both songs sound like the soundtrack to the end of the world. Throughout the album all the Dead Weather hallmarks are prominent: distorted, fuzzed bass and guitar, heavy keyboards, strangled vocals, and pounding drums. But unlike their earlier efforts, Horehound and Sea of Cowards, the sound doesn’t overwhelm the songs. These are the sturdiest songs the band has done. The best tunes on this album (“I Feel Love”, “Buzzkiller”, “Open Up”, “Cop and Go”) are as good or better than anything they’ve ever done, and even the lesser tracks (“Three Dollar Hat”, “Be Still”) are pretty solid. The album closer, “Impossible Winner” is a string-laden ballad that sounds like nothing else in their canon and proves that Mosshart can actually sing. The Dead Weather can be a tough listen; it’s rare that I revisit the first two albums. But it’s a band with talent and attitude to spare and on Dodge and Burn they sound for the first time like more than the sum of their parts.
    Grade: B+
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