Foo Fighters take a trek through Chicago's musical history on HBO's Sonic Highways, with mixed results | Bleader

Monday, October 20, 2014

Foo Fighters take a trek through Chicago's musical history on HBO's Sonic Highways, with mixed results

Posted By on 10.20.14 at 01:00 PM

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Foo Fighters in 2009
  • Courtesy of Wikipedia
  • Foo Fighters in 2009
A few minutes into the premiere episode of HBO's Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways front man Dave Grohl pitches the concept behind the band's forthcoming eighth album. "This all started with one idea," he says, "that the environment in which you make a record ultimately influences the end result. Not just the studio, but the people and the history." Two decades into their career as the Foo Fighters, Grohl and company decided to spice things up by recording each of the eight songs on the forthcoming Sonic Highways in different U.S. cities, with Grohl writing the lyrics for the songs before he sings them for the record—this theoretically allows him to draw upon the distinct history, character, and vibe of each locale. And it all begins in Chicago, the setting of the first episode.

Sonic Highways is a big deal—as a promotional tie-in, it's an unprecedented red carpet event to introduce a forthcoming album. The show isn't just a promotional document of a milestone for the Foos—flag bearers of 90s alternative nation proudly rocking on at the higher reaches of the pop charts with a consistency that belies rock's weakening grip on pop—it's an integral part of the group's creative process.

The HBO miniseries debuted Friday night, exactly 20 years to the day since Grohl walked into a Seattle studio to record the first Foo Fighters album (at least that's the date according to him). Grohl uses HBO's cameras to interview major players in regional music scenes, using their colorful anecdotes and narratives for his own musical inspiration. While Grohl aims to dig into the history of each city he's recording this album in, the presentation of Chicago's musical legacy is spotty. Sure, there's only so much you can fit into an hour-long show, but the exemptions are striking. Sonic Highways ignores house music, metal, and contemporary R&B; it focuses on Wax Trax's influence as a record store and skims over the rest; and it only touches upon hip-hop, jazz, and soul in a breezy "Chicago pop" montage that includes Kanye West, Gene Krupa, and Etta James. Emo was also overlooked, which is a lost opportunity to tip the hat to bassist Nate Mendel, who, prior to joining Foo Fighters in 1995, influenced hordes of aspiring midwestern musicians keen on his old emo outfit Sunny Day Real Estate.

But the first episode of Sonic Highways isn't so much about Mendel or even Chicago as much as it is a history of Grohl as seen through his band and this particular city. And the show excels when it focuses exclusively on Grohl. When Sonic Highways zeroes in on subjects the appeal is mostly due to Grohl's unyielding passion for his subjects. When he talks about working with Steve Albini for the first time on Nirvana's In Utero he still sounds like a fanboy tickled pink at the thought of working with a producer he admires.

Grohl is a superstar, one with a certain meme-ified ubiquity that enchants the public more often than it revolts them, and his down-to-earth persona is a hell of a hook. He dedicates a whole section of Sonic Highways to recalling a childhood trip to Chicago when his teenaged cousin (Verboten's Tracey Bradford) took him to see his first punk show, which was Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear. (Adding more icing on the promotional cake Foo Fighters performed at Cubby Bear right after Sonic Highways aired on HBO.) These personal diversions end up being more endearing than some of the tidy anecdotes about the robust talents of blues and punk musicians, and they're generally more interesting than the scenes of Foo Fighters working on their Chicago song, "Something From Nothing," at Electrical Audio.

The heavy "Something From Nothing" ain't bad, with the exception of Grohl's lyrics: his words, some of which were cherry-picked from his interviewees' charming anecdotes, lack an intuitive grasp of the unique Chicago flavor he wanted to capture. Fortunately the cinematic local episode of Sonic Highways fares better despite (and, at times, because of) its faults.

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