Every few years, a noteworthy musician will gather several of his industry friends inside a studio and make an album based around a particular motif. The musician in control of the project will usually play at least one instrument on every track, each featuring a different singer, and other artists will fill in whatever parts are left to be recorded. The latest project to fit that mold is Sound City: Real to Reel, the soundtrack to Dave Grohl‘s documentary about the famous, now-defunct Sound City studio in Los Angeles. Much like the film, its soundtrack features the people who once recorded at the studio getting together to celebrate the human element behind rock music. Though celebrate they certainly did, the outcome isn’t devoid of a few pitfalls typically inherent to this type of record.
Whether for solo or side project purposes, a matter of pure logistics comes into albums like this: artists can only afford to put so much time and effort into something that’s someone else’s passion project, regardless of how much they want to make it work. With most of the material on Sound City written (and put to tape) on the spot, there wasn’t much time to obsess over lyrics or specific song parts. Furthermore, the fact that some of the musicians have collaborated extensively in the past, and others not at all, means that some cuts are likely destined to stand out from the get-go. The “Real” part of the title is definitely represented here, but it’s not a great feature all of the time.
Anyone who’s seen the documentary was able to witness the creation of Cut Me Some Slack, the track that joins Paul McCartney with a “reunited Nirvana,” and ends up as a perfect example of impromptu songwriting that works – probably better than it should, given the unusual collaboration. It’s arguably the most exciting thing we’ve heard from the former Beatle in years, and his slide guitar playing is almost good enough to let the throwaway lyrics go unnoticed. A less unusual collaboration comes via opening number Heaven and All, which basically finds Grohl drumming for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been. The result is, through and through, a BRMC jam, and sounds about as good as one of their regulars.
Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Alain Johannes and QOTSA producer/Masters of Reality nucleus Chris Goss are featured on three tracks each, and given Grohl’s previous (and present) association with the band, one shouldn’t be too surprised to hear some highlights on those songs. Though one could also expect a bit more. Time Slowing Down finds Goss balancing a beautiful melody with a heavy-hitting rhythm session (courtesy of Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford), while Johannes’ voice gives a vibrant life of its own to the otherwise-average A Trick With No Sleeve. Sung by Homme and Goss, Centipede might fall just short of the glorious kaleidoscope of weirdness and beauty you’d expect from a QOTSA track, feeling more like a reworked leftover from Them Crooked Vultures, but it is gorgeously layered nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the mid-section of the album finds collaborations that don’t fare quite as well, and wind up costing the overall flow. The way that Stevie Nicks pushes her voice a bit too far on You Can’t Fix This is acceptable, but there’s no justification for stretching what could be a decent four minutes affair to an unreasonably long six minutes. Later, Rick Springfield’s The Man That Never Was is such a standard rock song that it barely makes itself noteworthy, while From Can to Can’t finds Corey Taylor getting as cheesy as he can be when he truly lets himself go – that is, too cheesy.
After the Grohl-sung ballad If I Were Me, the record closes out with Mantra, arguably one of its most anticipated tracks, featuring Grohl, Josh Homme and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. The track surprises early on by having Grohl singing lead – perhaps an unfortunate decision to have his vocals on two songs in a row -, but it slowly evolves past that into a beast of a seven-minute, multi-session track. Much like the record itself, Mantra could end up as proof that putting “real” musicians inside a studio isn’t always a recipe for success (as nine out of every ten “supergroups” out there will prove), but in the end it somehow dodges that bullet and progresses into a song that’s memorable all on its own.
Collaboration albums in the vein of Sound City: Real to Reel are bound to be picked apart no matter what, due to the obvious variety of musicians and styles involved. Avid fans of each associated will undoubtedly save the tracks they care about, while the general public is likely not to remember much of the release after a few years. While not all of it lives up to expectations, and more overall consistency would certainly help, there are definitely tracks to be enjoyed here. You can tell how much of a blast the musicians had making this entire record – it’s too bad that the listener isn’t always let in on the fun.
Stream Sound City: Real to Reel here.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.