Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways

Foo Fighters have now been Dave Grohl’s chief concern for 20 years. The first 10 were spent minting the band’s platinum-plated modern-rock sound, and the subsequent decade was spent trying to remold it… only to have it settle back into its predictable color and shape. Indeed, it’s hard to distinguish one Foo Fighters album from another, since they all draw from the same well of arena-punk fist-pumpers, gentle comedown ballads, and arm-swaying sing-alongs that fall somewhere in between; as their Greatest Hits compilation made all too clear, a Foos song from 2007 sounds an awful lot like one from 1997. To his credit, Grohl seems well aware of the fine line between being unerringly consistent and relentlessly formulaic, and has tried to provide each new record with a fresh narrative. But these strategies have essentially amounted to hanging different frames around an unchanging picture—like a double-album opus that simply segregated the Foos’ habitual whispers and screams, or a back-to-the-garage throwback seemingly designed for garages big enough to house private jets.

That said, Grohl’s latest plan to drum up interest for a new record could be his most ingenious: make the most elaborate, expensive EPK in music history and have HBO distribute it. Sonic Highways is the name of both the Foos’ eighth record and an accompanying, eight-part TV series documenting its ambitious, cross-country production process, with the band (alongside Butch Vig) recording each of its eight songs in a different city. It effectively blows up the concept of Grohl’s 2013 film, Sound City, to a national scale: visit a renowned musical mecca, speak to the legends that put it on the map, and hope some of their mojo rubs off onto new recordings.

As a documentary, the Sonic Highways series takes full advantage of Grohl’s unique status as a punk-spawned celebrity to deftly intertwine mainstream and underground rock histories. For instance, so far we’ve seen how Chicago-blues icons like Buddy Guy and noisy nihilists like Big Black were both fueled by the same impoverished necessity, or how hardcore pioneers Minor Threat and go-go greats Trouble Funk shone a light on the Washington that lurks in the shadow of Capitol Hill. As a promotional film for a new Foo Fighters album, however, it makes you wonder why its trailblazing subjects’ transgressive influence didn’t seep into the sound of final product. 

Though it’s all relative, Sonic Highways is the most adventurous Foo Fighters album to date, but it bends their trusty template in ways that bear little relation to the project’s underlying musical-history-tour gambit. (It’s not like hanging out with Bad Brains inspired a sharp left turn into light-speed D.C. hardcore, or digging up Roky Erickson’s roots in Austin has introduced sunbaked psychedelia into the mix.) Rather, at eight tracks and 42 minutes, Sonic Highways is paradoxically the Foos’ leanest record while boasting their most sprawling compositions, taking a more scenic route to their usual destinations.

Where most Foo Fighters songs have shown their hand by the first chorus, the highlights here gradually build up in step-like fashion: “Something From Nothing” may boast a typically teeth-clenching Foos climax, but it rides a surprisingly funky (if uncannily Dio-esque) organ groove to get there; “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” stays well within Grohl’s power-pop pocket, but its stop-start/two-part structure suggests Big Star’s “Back of a Car” given a musical-theater makeover. And even songs that travel a straight-and-narrow path have a welcome sense of patience about them, revealing new melodic nuances along the way (like on the dreamy jangle-pop of “Subterranean”) or, in the case of “Congregation”, unexpected dynamic shifts: what starts off as a standard-issue, cruise-controlled rocker in the “Learning to Fly”/“Times Like These” mold acquires a more intense energy, thanks to an extended soul-stomping breakdown buoyed by Zac Brown’s finger-picking. 

But given the great logistical effort that went into the album’s creation—and the fanboy reverence Grohl exhibits toward his interview subjects on each “Sonic Highways” episode—it’s unfortunate that the regional essence of a given a song is barely perceptible without the televised exposition. Beyond illustrating that upbeat pop-punk is an odd forum for a discussion of the ’68 D.C. race riots (see: “Feast and the Famine”), most of the special guests here are given little room to assert their personalities amid the Foos’ chromatic crunch: the New Orleans Preservation Jazz Band doesn’t have much to do on “In the Clear” but chirp up its mid-tempo riff; Joe Walsh’s bluesy fills get lost in the fast lane of “Outside”; and good luck parsing out the presence of Joan Jett on “I Am a River”, a gaudy Macy’s Day Parade of a power ballad that, just when you think can’t get any more overblown, piles on a false ending and string-section finale. The composite cityscape seen on Sonic Highways’ front cover proves to be all-too emblematic of the album’s overall sound: a hodgepodge of aesthetic signifiers that get swallowed up into a monolithic whole.  

Watching “Sonic Highways”, you get the sense that the real purpose of the whole endeavor wasn’t so much to reinterpret the musical traditions of a given city as simply broaden Grohl’s lyrical perspective beyond his usual relationship-focussed ruminations and self-help affirmations. In some of the episodes that have aired so far, we see a shot of Grohl sitting down after completing his interviews to write a song based on all the local lore he’s absorbed; the episodes then conclude with the Foos performing the resultant track, as the lyrics—loaded with knowing references to “muddy water,” “the 13th floor,” and “bluebirds”—are splashed across the screen practically begging for I-see-what-you-did-there acknowledgement. Ironically, in trying to tap into the mystique of America’s most storied cities, Foo Fighters completely demystify their own creative process, effectively turning the Sonic Highways project into a glorified homework assignment—educational, perhaps, but laboriously procedural.  

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Modest Mouse: This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About/The Lonesome Crowded West

The Modest Mouse of the 2000s was very of its time, when indie rock was turning more porous and mainstream. The Moon and Antarctica from 2000 clothed their decrepit strains in major label finery and production by someone outside of their local bubble, Califone‘s Brian Deck. The record also let in influences that were not yet entirely indie-approved, such as dance music on “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”. Morbid lyrics and backmasked guitars notwithstanding, “Gravity Rides Everything” was catchy enough to sell Nissan Quest minivans. Moon, though clearly a classic now, caused debates over whether Modest Mouse had “sold out,” something people still earnestly fretted about as the Internet was upsetting old hierarchies.

This commercial openness was quite a shift for a band defined by a sense of isolation in its own secret world. The Modest Mouse of the ’90s had also been very much of its time, when indie rock was less of a popular genre than a refuge from them. Weird bands from nowhere places strained their quirks through a punk filter, and their styles were narrower but, perhaps, deeper than those of their polyglot descendants. Modest Mouse fit the mold. Formed by singer and guitarist Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and bassist Eric Judy in the Washington suburb of Issaquah, they had a kind of insular, visionary oddness.

Modest Mouse quickly found purchase in the Pacific Northwest scene. In 1994, they made their first EP with Calvin Johnson in Olympia for his twee-punk label K Records, as well as a single for Seattle’s Sub Pop. They also recorded the album Sad Sappy Sucker, which sat on the shelf until 2001, when it did indeed turn out to be their most K-style record—bright, baggy, and loose at the seams. During this time they veered off into a wilderness of their own devising, debuting with the darker and tauter This Is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About on Up Records in 1996. That and their second Up album, 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West, have just been reissued by Brock’s Glacial Pace label. Both are excellent, but it’s the more fully formed Lonesome that consummates an era.

From the start, Modest Mouse were instantly recognizable: Judy’s ropy bass and Green’s drumming, heaving from a caveman bash to a disco skip, are indispensable to the rangy, volatile sound. But it’s the guitars that really define it, so strange and particular—Brock’s hearty riffs, string bends, harmonics, and whammy-bar tremolo push up toward trebly extremes of panicked intensity. The songs break down into wheezes and coughs as the band pounds the ends of bars until they curl up like sheet metal. 

But they weren’t completely ex nihilo. Like other ’90s indie groups, Modest Mouse reflected their region before pulling free from it on later albums. There’s grunge in the whisper-scream dynamics here, metal and punk in sections of breakneck thrash, twee in the richly jangling acoustic guitars and in Brock’s voice, always petulant and pleading. There are also outlying indie touchstones—”Might” sounds like Built to Spill if someone had knocked Doug Martsch on the head, other songs evoke the Pixies by way of Pink Floyd. Even alt-rock is absorbed in the patchwork pop of “Lounge”, a medley of surf-rock, hot jazz, and chamber music with shout-rapped lyrics. But Modest Mouse were already fortifying their hermetic island on Long Drive, where they pitted the jarring against the lulling in diverse ways.

The great theme of both albums is travel, or more essentially, how motion through space feels. This is also intricately bound up with the physical geography Modest Mouse inhabited. The urban paranoia of post-punk seeps into wide-open rural, looming industrial and encroaching suburban vistas, all alike in their sinister, hypnotic repetition. With the first words of Long Drive, “traveling swallowing Dramamine,” a sense of drugged conveyance through some grand monotony settles over us. We seem to glimpse empty landscapes with twisty bits of things blowing through them in the window of a train. Strip malls and parking lots, monuments and steeples, empty fields and dark forests scroll by in a purgatorial loop. This becomes overt on “Convenient Parking”, a dusty practice riff with broken springs.

For Brock, these enclosing physical confines are tantamount to mental ones; he’s always moving forward without getting anywhere different, and he confronts this existential emergency with disdain and terrified awe. The music cultivates its particular urgency by devising and then breaking free from psychic traps. “From the top of the ocean/ From the bottom of the sky/ Well, I get claustrophobic,” Brock bellows on Lonesome‘s “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”, an image that would return in different form a few years later on “Ocean Breathes Salty”. The earth and heavens are not mediums but inescapable masses, crushing us in the seam where they meet. The feeling of being stuck in a small town inflates to cosmological proportions.

Home-schooled in religious hippie communes, Brock was primed for this visionary vocation. His lyrics are marked by a war between militant atheism and kind of crypto-Christian mysticism, a tension that twists his perspective into strange shapes. On these records, the pavement is steadily encroaching on the wild in ways that feel spiritually symbolic. Brock wants to wrench apart ground and sky, prefabricated towns and consumer culture, to find an exit hatch into some deeper, more meaningful state of being which, as he suspects on “Exit Does Not Exist”, is a fantasy.

Modest Mouse never captured their particular rural paranoia better than on Lonesome‘s “Cowboy Dan”, a minor key dirge that takes us to a jet-black desert rustling below the occasional shooting star. It’s a folkloric tale of a cowboy who tries to shoot down God as revenge for mortality, with eerie calls and groans floating out of a vast, breathing darkness. “I didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me,” he cries, via Brock’s rabid goblin croak, “and I want out desperately,” a theme that first began to develop on Long Drive‘s “Beach Side Property”.

It’s all about inverted insides and outsides: huge landscapes that feel like small cages, civilizations that breed a savage misanthropy, disbelief that feels like religion. “Doin’ the Cockroach” begins with the elusive dichotomy, “I was in heaven, I was in Hell/ Believe in neither but fear them as well.” Brock excoriates riders on the Amtrak for “talking ’bout TV,” punctuating his condemnations with pleas to “please shut up.” He also slips in one of the best of the obscure aphorisms that would come to increasingly infiltrate his litany of complaints: Some number of years “down the road in your life, you’ll look in the mirror and say, ‘My parents are still alive.'” I think it’s about getting older, but it’s open to numberless interpretations, all of them with the indescribable ambient menace of a bad dream.

The Lonesome Crowded West fine-tunes forms that were introduced on Long Drive. “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and the sprawling “Trucker’s Atlas” draw the erratic thrust of “Breakthrough” into sleeker, more commanding arcs. “Lounge (Closing Time)” is a less novelty-based, more structurally balanced version of “Lounge”. And “Shit Luck” is even more potent than”Tundra/Desert”, with two-note power chords growling up and down the neck in breakneck syncopation with wailing string bends. The record also refines some new looks that would soon be developed, such as the scratchy rural funk jam of “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child” and tender, ringing ballads such as “Heart Cooks Brain” and the gentle confessional “Trailer Trash”.  

With Moon, Modest Mouse caught a new wave of spacey psych-pop alongside the likes of The Flaming Lips, and it let them out on a foreign shore: mainstream success. Good News for People Who Love Bad News (2004) went platinum, produced hit single “Float On”, landed the band on SNL and earned a Grammy nomination. To me, that was the last real Modest Mouse album—and even it was on the verge—as the personalities that made the group unique got diluted by new personnel, i.e., someone as externally defined as Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) was the band’s first number one album, but it felt like an ending, and only an EP of leftovers from the last two albums has emerged since. 

Lonesome came out right on the hinge between indie rock’s regional phase and its global one, in 1997, the year I got my first email address, and I still have the original LP I bought around then. Listening to albums you loved that long ago often feels like looking at old photos, but the remarkable thing about these reissues is that their thrill feels contemporary, a present sense of physical and psychological danger. Indeed, something you notice in an almost manically retro indie music climate is a striking absence of nostalgia. Things are fucked now, with no inkling that they were ever any better, no state of grace to return to.

The end of the ’90s were packed with epochal last gasps of pre-Internet indie rock that came out just as Radiohead’s OK Computer was becoming the avatar of the next, more mainstream phase. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or—all exhausted blazes of glory, like light bulbs flaring brightest as they burn out. The Lonesome Crowded West stands tall and defiantly weird among them.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Melvins: Hold It In

Even after three decades of relentless touring and over twenty album cycles, Melvins laugh in the face of that thing some call a “break”. Last year, Melvins celebrated their thirtieth anniversary as a band, and they released two records to mark the date: the covers album Everybody Loves Sausages  and Tres Cabrones, which revived the band’s original 1983 lineup, including original drummer Mike Dillard (who had never appeared on a proper Melvins LP up until that point). Shortly thereafter, the band covered Butthole Surfers’ “Graveyard” while giving away free ice cream to a crowd of kids in Chicago’s Humboldt Park as part of the A.V. Club’s “Undercover” series. Strangely enough, that puzzling performance provides more evidence of the band’s staying power than Everybody Loves Sausages and Tres Cabrones combined. To see beloved oddball frontman King Buzzo excitedly croak “Free ice cream!” and toss chilly freebies to eager children, as his bandmates (including Butthole Surfers bassist JD Pinkus) continue to pierce eardrums, is telling what it is about the Melvins that continues to amaze: their untainted devotion to chaos, rooted in a perverse Peter Pan complex.

Considering their filthy, flippant reputation and their shared affinities for black humor and gleeful racket, a Melvins/Butthole Surfers crossover comes as no real surprise. The collaboration didn’t stop with ice cream trucks, either: Pinkus supported Melvins on their recent tour, and Surfers guitarist Paul Leary joined his former bandmate shortly afterward for sessions with Osborne and drummer Dale Crover. The result is Hold It In, a musical merger between the two bands that amplifies the uncanniness of that Chicago one-off. It’s also one of the catchiest Melvins record to date, containing syrupy, sickeningly sweet melodies abound, built upon the bedrock of both bands’ usual scuzzy styles. 

 The quartet’s warped pop exhibits many forms on Hold It In, from swampy garage (“Eyes on You”) to stoner jams (“Onions Make the Milk Go Bad”), but the underlying idea is rather static: taking the grotesque and defanging it by way of caricature to fuse the catchy with the creepy. The choppy new-wave guitars of “Brass Cupcake” initially comes across as the Cars updated for the Torche set, but when the chorus kicks in and Buzzo screams, “Because they’ve got a lot of mouths to feed!/ And their noses and their mouths will bleed!”, dragging out his “e”s like a Saturday morning cartoon villain, it’s clear that the band haven’t lost their fascination with B-movie thrills. On similarly grizzled cuts like “Sesame Street Meat” and “The Bunk Up”, bloodlust and carnality take on a cartoonish guise, conveyed through stomping percussion and jagged fretwork but, in the case of the latter, disarmingly pleasant shoegazey non-sequiturs (the sonic equivalent, perhaps, of Osborne’s ice-cream-tossing interlude). At times, though, the disparity between sweet and sour toes the line between clever and cloying: “You Can Make Me Wait” debunks any oddball theories that a Melvins song featuring vocoder vocals in the place of down-tuned guitars could possibly be a good thing, drifting along lethargically until Leary pushes it along with a triumphant solo that comes across as too little, too late. 

The roles Leary and Pinkus play on Hold It In prove more supportive than directive. Most of the time, the two musicians play by Melvins’ down-tuned, down-strummed house rules, unashamedly stoic and determined to amplify their peers’ freak-outs. Considered alongside the swathe of chug-a-thons dominating the record, the Butthole Surfers’ touches—such as the repeated blues solos and lechery-drenched growls distinguishing “ Eyes on You” and “I Get Along (Hollow Moon)”—scan as grafts of the two’s Texan rock upon their Cascadian counterparts, rather than impositions. In this regard, Hold It In subverts the mercurial, self-contradictory schtick that undermines so many collaborative LPs.

By the time the record’s second half rolls around, however, the band’s carnivalesque perspective, proves myopic. After “Sesame Street Meat”, the album’s gnarled touches lose their menace, swept away by one-dimensional bluesy cuts and jam-session rambling that engulfs longer tracks like”The Bunk Up”and “House of Gasoline”. So it goes with Melvins—they’re the musical equivalent of that endearingly wacky uncle who believe in ghosts, conspiracy theories, and punk rock. They can be a bit one-note sometimes, but that doesn’t make them any less beloved; without their ribaldness, the world of heavy music just wouldn’t be as fun.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait EP

West Coast gangsta rap has enjoyed a lasting revival in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, with albums by Schoolboy Q, YG, DJ Mustard and others following its lead in advancing the quality and chart traction of narrative-intensive gang-life dispatches. good kid’s unblinking austerity went missing, though, as the infectious levity of Mustard’s airtight party anthems went national, inspiring even Kendrick to inch over to the sunny side with his studiously motivational comeback single “i”. The lesson of good kid—that you could make radio without catering to it—seems lost as L.A. revels in a renewed commercial relevance.

Long Beach rapper Vince Staples is sick of cheery street rap. “If you listen to shit about niggas being in a position where they have no hope, there should be nothing at peace about that,” he said in a recent interview with Pitchfork. “There’s a way to do it where it’s listenable and likable, but it shouldn’t just be some happy stuff.” Staples’ own body of work rests on a nervous axis between expressive, imagistic wordplay and somber cynicism. There’s pessimism in the opportunism. There’s stress in the joy. At his peppiest—the chorus of “Feelin’ the Love”, perhaps, the closer on his just-released retail debut Hell Can Wait—he’s still waving at death: “Is you feelin’ amazing? Yeah I’m feelin’ the love/ Hope I get to take it with me when my living is done.”

Hell Can Wait is a reminder that living is another word for cheating death. It’s bleak and maybe exasperating, but the reality of the street is that babies gotta eat, jobs are scarce, and some people have to resort to tactics that risk death and imprisonment to make it through the day. There’s no wide-eyed good kid narrating the disorder in Staples’ city, just a realist making do with the available options. “Niggas from my home ain’t enrolled in the colleges/ Fuck a class, junkies hitting glass, get the money long,” Vince snarls on “65 Hunnid”. On “Screen Door” he balks at the popularity of imaginary gangsters, asserting that his own home was rawer than any Hollywood adaptation: “Bobby Johnson ain’t my OG/ This ain’t no movie role/ Pops was off the OE/ Tripping, getting his Tookie on.”

In the middle of the EP Staples’ ire sharpens into an icepick. “Hands Up” protests LAPD’s use of excessive force (“They expect respect and nonviolence/ I refuse the right to be silent”) in a diatribe Staples swears isn’t about Ferguson. But in a climate where surveillance cam and cell phone footage have revealed law enforcement bullying and violence against black bodies for a near-daily operation, “Hands Up”’s volatile objection to “Paying taxes for some fucking clowns to ride around whooping niggas’ asses” hits hard from coast to coast. Lead single “Blue Suede” is a curt rejoinder about gang violence being deadly too; the terse chorus—“New shoes with the blue suede/ Young graves get the bouquets”—folds a lifetime of adversity into just a few words, a series of damning images cataloguing the disintegration of hope. 

That economy is Hell Can Wait’s guiding principle. Staples never wastes a word in exhibiting a hustler’s hard-won resilience, and he’s abetted by producers that buoy his stories without overwhelming them. Leading the charge is Toronto producer Hagler (best known for a co-producer credit on Drake’s “Trophies”). Hagler gifts “Screen Door” and “Limos” their hypnotic poise, but he truly shines on “Blue Suede”, which sounds like a trap artist’s rendering of the moment Dr. Dre thought to slap high pitched Moog lines over breaks, the resulting menace tracing a line of ancestry between L.A.’s riots and Raiders era and today. Elsewhere Lil Wayne associate Infamous effects a Nawlins death march for “65 Hunnid”, and Staples’ mentor and label head No I.D. outfits “Hands Up” with a guttural low end fitting of a song that could be considered a spiritual successor to “Fuck tha Police”.

Hell Can Wait is a debut for Staples, but it’s really a refinement, the end result of a years long search for the right producer that spawned a string of good but not always great mixtapes and loosies. Even a casual listener could hear the spark—Staples’ first fame came from getting the best of known mic terrorist Earl Sweatshirt—but his production values have finally caught up enough to push him past the scrappy sidekick division into the big leagues. In an era where signing to a major label can mean artistic regression, Vince Staples’ jump to Def Jam is a case study in the enduring merit of good old-fashioned artist development. The machine still works sometimes.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork