-- intro: This week the Foo Fighters offer up the much-hyped companion album to their HBO series “Sonic Highways,” Pink Floyd returns for one last goodbye with “The Endless River,” Damien Rice breaks an eight-year silence while Garth Brooks returns after a huge 13-year break, Marianne Faithfull sets a darkly pleasant mood and rockers … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead deliver yet another grand statement. It’s a busy week full of complex ambitions and some long-delayed returns.
quicklist: 1 title: Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways” ** text: First thing’s first. “Sonic Highways” is a great idea for TV show. Dave Grohl and company have gone around the country, interviewing musicians from eight different cities in the United States about how each of their individual home bases affect the music they make. After the huge success of “Sound City,” Grohl seems like the perfect guy to be up for this task. But then, the Foos took it perhaps a step too far. Grohl decided to use elements and phrases from the interviews to create songs inspired by every city. On paper this still seems like an excellent idea. In practice, as an eight-song album, though, “Sonic Highways” does not live up to the potential. It becomes cumbersome and gets buried in its own built-in sense of importance. You get the idea that the concept itself outweighed the actual execution.
I’m not going to flat out blame Grohl for this. He has a lot on his shoulders and, for the most part, he’s reliable and worthy of his legendary status on several levels. That Foo Fighters seem to be one of the only rock bands still openly embraced by the mainstream is a heavy sticking point. One thing that is abundantly clear when listening to “Sonic Highways” is the absence of the quirks that made their early records interesting. The alterna-punk leanings of their earliest records have been muted, transforming them in a clichéd arena-rock band. This is “ROCK” in the most stereotypical sense. Grohl may not realize it, but it sounds like he’s sacrificed all of his band’s edge to remain firmly in the center as the populist rock band of choice.
“Sonic Highways” just lacks excitement. “Something From Nothing” merges a late-Beatles blues with some Zeppelin-style riffing, while “Congregation” merges a Byrds-like signature with a Cheap Trick-esque sense of showmanship. “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” sounds a bit like “Sweet Home Alabama.” Even with Grohl’s plaintive screams from time to time, the album sounds blandly formulaic. The setup would imply lots of surprises but this plays like an exercise. Considering that this album is full of guests and was helmed by Butch Vig, who was also behind the boards on the band’s very invigorating, very surprising, focused and excellent last effort “Wasting Light,” this record’s execution is a huge disappointment. This album needed an oddball turn like “White Limo” to keep things interesting or maybe even an earth-shaking ballad like “Everlong.” You won’t find either here.
“Sonic Highways” from all the build-up should have been a game-changer. Instead it ends up being a high-concept, low-octane misstep. Each move here is easily predictable and each pose taken here has been done better on previous records. Oh, well. Sometimes even the great ones take a fall. Yes, after the triumph of “Sound City,” this should have worked. Sadly, for the most part, it doesn’t.
“I Am a River” This closing track is the closest to something memorable and distinct that Grohl achieves. This song has the best melody and a soaring chorus. His lyrics about finding a “reason beneath the subway floor” still aches of location-centric grasping considering this was recorded in New York. Still, this should have been the album’s main single.
“The Feast And The Famine” This is a by-the-numbers Foo Fighters song. It could have been on any of their records. It was recorded in Arlington, Virginia, and it has a bit of a punch to it.
quicklist: 2 title: Pink Floyd’s “The Endless River” ***1/2 text: “The Endless River” is most likely the ending of Pink Floyd, which is truly sad. Considering Roger Waters left the band long ago and Rick Wright died in 2008, this means that the reins are firmly in the hands of David Gilmour and Nick Mason. Sure, this album has apparently long been in the works, because Wright actually is on the record. But one thing is clear: This is intended to be one last goodbye. Considering it is the band’s first proper album since 1994’s “The Division Bell” and the fact that with the exception of single, “Louder Than Words” it is an instrumental record, it stands out for several reasons. Sure, the band often dealt with long instrumental stretches throughout their career but the stark, ethereal nature of “The Endless River,” with its pseudo-electronic sheen and epic soloing, reminds listeners that this record is more of an exercise in mood than it is one in song-structure. This is the band flexing all of their prog-iest muscles, adding new-age elements and electro-jazz.
When “Louder Than Words” arrives at the end of the record, it feels like a mournful goodbye and yet it is a song that would fit next to “Us And Them” or “Learning To Fly.” If only they’d made this record sooner and they’d convinced Waters to come back they might have given the band a more fitting closing. But as it is, “The Endless River” still feels like a fitting sonic drift into the ether.
“Louder Than Words” As the only song with sung lyrics, this is the ideal single and Gilmour sings it with great pride. It really does feel like a final bow.
“Talkin’ Hawkin’” This is a blues riff built around a sample of Stephen Hawking. Not only is this appropriate on the heels of the release of the biopic, “The Theory Of Everything,” but the meeting of the highly cerebral Floyd and Hawking seems extremely fitting.
“Sum” This is a building jam with an ethereal keyboard base. It’s a reminder that Pink Floyd was among the first rock bands to play with techno-esque and ambient textures.
quicklist: 3 title: Damien Rice’s “My Favourite Faded Fantasy” ****1/2 text: I must admit I was worried about “My Favourite Faded Fantasy.” Not only is it his first studio album in eight years, but it is also his first album since parting ways with vocalist Lisa Hannigan, who offered up many of the highlighted moments of his first two proper records as well as his B-sides collection. Factor in the fact that it only has eight songs to make its point. But, thankfully, Rice does not disappoint. This is a stirring collection that harnesses the soul-searching and the occasionally eerie beauty of his previous work. And the songs here are richly woven together with a handcrafted charm. They ache with heartbreak, well-thought poetic lyrical imagery and orchestral grace.
A few of these eight tracks are on the lengthy side. “It Takes A Lot To Know A Man” clocks in at nine-and-a-half minutes, while “Trusty And True” is just over eight minutes, but Rice knows what he is doing and he is such a master of setting a mood that these tracks never outstay their welcome. This is a quietly enveloping album that is meant to be listened to with a great deal of focus. While the opening title-track finds Rice singing in a gentle-yet-tortured falsetto, he never loses a sense of comfort beneath the surface. This is really a collection of uneasy lullabies for people with wounded hearts.
At times, this album’s softly haunting tone makes it an ideal folk-driven descendant to Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” recalling a time before Thom Yorke and company got lost in the dystopian electronic haze of “Kid A.” Rice wants to pull you in while making transcendent music thick with underlying, unspoken subtext.
With this album, Rice erases his eight-year absence in one quick movement. He obviously set out to make a classic.
“I Don’t Want To Change You” This song is beautiful and the production is perfect. When the drums come in they really kick you in the ear without throwing off the gentle balance of the strings, soft guitar work and Rice’s emotional vocal work. This is also one of Rice’s best melodies to date.
“It Takes A Lot To Know A Man” As stated above, this song is nearly 10 minutes in length. Again it finds nice cohesion between all of its parts. The piano melody in particular really stands out. Perhaps inspired by his song “The Blower’s Daughter” having been used as the theme for the movie “Closer” a decade ago, this too has a very cinematic feel. Of course when he sings about “the touch, the feel” I can’t help think of the jingle for cotton. (Hahaha.)
“Colour Me In” This is the kind of soft, acoustic ballad that is Rice’s signature. It showcases his skills perfectly.
quicklist: 4 title: Garth Brooks’ “Man Against Machine” **1/2 text: Thirteen years is a long way to be away, but with “Man Against Machine,” Garth Brooks attempts to reclaim his crown as the hit-king of modern country. It is like a homecoming of sorts and this album isn’t without its bright spots, but it is at times a tremendously uneven offering. The title track with its “John Henry” symbolism is packed with soul as if revving up for a fight and while the tale of a younger woman looking for an older lover in “She’s Tired Of Boys” can come off a bit sleazy, it still isn’t without its appeal.
Quickly after that for a couple of songs, Brooks takes some easy swings though. The football star-turned-war-hero tale “All American Kid” seems ripped out of the country music handbook, as does the syrupy “Mom,” in which an unborn baby has a conversation with God about the life that awaits him when he is born. The latter track is particularly odd. But during these moments, it sounds like Brooks is pandering to his audience, which in spite of his long absence he doesn’t need to do. He’s Garth Brooks! He ruled the country charts in the ‘90s and rightfully earned himself superstar status. He can afford to take a different route.
There are also moments of surprise. “Rodeo and Juliet” may be a hokey merging of country clichés and Shakespeare, but in a way it works. And “People Loving People,” while kind of simplistic in its approach, is a warm reminder to appreciate the folks around you.
Still, this is an album with as many weak spots as highlights. “Fish” is a rather bland fisherman’s anthem while “Cowboys Forever” hits its points a little too hard on the nose, as if it too desperately wants to be a thesis statement for an entire genre of music.
Brooks is best when he avoids the cowboy and homespun clichés and goes his own way. This album should have been a career-redefining home run and it has glimpses of greatness like the tremendously well-executed “You Wreck Me,“ but otherwise it is the sound of a long-absent veteran trying to regain his footing.
“You Wreck Me” No, this isn’t the Tom Petty track, although it might be interesting to hear Brooks attempt that track. This song is actually a ballad with a soaring chorus that Brooks really nails.
“People Loving People” This is a warm, winning number with a positive message. Don’t hate. Love. As basic as that is as a concept, it still works.
“Man Against Machine” This is a gritty opener full of dense twists and turns and it blends soul and gospel-like drive with a rock energy. The mechanical sounds are a nice touch.
quicklist: 5 title: Marianne Faithfull’s “Give My Love to London” **** text: Sure, Marianne Faithfull’s voice has famously and rapidly evolved. The once high sweet cooing heard on her early Stones cover “As Tears Go By” quickly turned into a whisky and smoke-tinged rasp. Her voice in its current damaged condition is both a miracle and a warning. The thing is, she knows exactly how to masterfully use it to the best of her ability.
“Give My Love to London,” as an album, is a surprisingly cool display of musicianship and her voice, as dingy and rusty as it may sound at times, is packed with character. She is still very skilled. As it is surrounded by echo and feedback, it can really set a tone in the way that a clear perfectly pitched instrument simply cannot.
The material here is also picked and arranged exquisitely. Faithfull covers everyone from Leonard Cohen, to Nick Cave to Hoagy Carmichael, and she co-writes songs with indie superstars like Ed Harcourt and Anna Calvi. The title track was written with Steve Earle of all people. (Yes, she is now hanging with Walon from “The Wire.”)
Faithfull proves here that like David Bowie and Tom Waits, she belongs in the eternally hip club. In her late 60s, she is still very much working on the cutting edge. She has been through hell and seen it all and every shred and every shard bleeds through in every note. She is, after all, at her core the ideal well-worn chanteuse. At times this album plays like the soundtrack to a hauntingly apocalyptic, shoegaze, blues and dream-pop-tinged cabaret. Marianne Faithfull is, after all, one of rock’s greatest survivors.
“Sparrows Will Sing” Roger Waters wrote this song for Faithfull. It fits her perfectly. When she sings, “The new generation is eager to master the helm. / They cannot be seduced by this candyfloss techno hell,” she hits it with just the right amount of disdain in her voice.
“Mother Wolf” One of the songs co-written with Madonna-collaborator Patrick Leonard, this is another song that gloriously captures the right mood as Faithfull sings “The thoughts in your heart sicken me.”
“Give My Love To London” This title track is very bright and happy sounding, almost with the sound of an Irish jig. Still there is a sharpness to it all as Faithfull sings about how she’ll visit “paradise to hell.”
quicklist: 6 title: ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s “IX” **** text: Probably because of their frightening name that was no doubt intended to chase away the squares, Austin, Texas, band … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead do not get the credit they deserve. But, honestly, they are one of the most excitingly well-rounded rock bands to emerge within the past 20 years.
“IX” is their latest offering and it continues the band’s stream of high-bar releases. They have always issued great records, but 2011’s “Tao Of The Dead” and 2012’s “Lost Songs” are particular masterpieces. While this album may not quite have the clarity of both those records, it still continues much in the spirit that they set forth. Leaders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece are always determined to show their range and from the softly hauntingly gentle piano refrain of “The Ghost Within” to the nearly tribal-meets-Eastern mash-up and deconstruction heard “The Sound Of Silk,” they succeed grandly. All of this is held together by a knack for hard-rock experimentation.
Further tying this album together with works of the recent past, this album is also packaged with a bonus disc entitled “Tao Of The Dead Part III,” containing a boldly expansive, constantly evolving 19-minute continuous track that plays like a third side to that 2011 record. If “IX” proves anything as an album, it is that these guys never grow tired of expanding their sound. This is an album that is both impressive and dense. If you have never listened to them before, you have a lot of catching up to do.
“The Ghost Within” As with a lot of their records, the best moments usually come with the biggest surprises and the gentleness of “The Ghost Within” provides a beautiful passage in the record. This song deserves a lot of airplay. As it builds and explodes in a more typical fashion to the band’s core sound, it just adds to its greatness.
“How To Avoid Huge Ships” This instrumental is as much an exercise in mood as it is an exploration into swirling psychedelic prog-rock. This is the work of mannered, master musicians.
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