Sound City / Sound City: Real To Reel (2013)

Posted: April 1, 2013 in Movies, Music

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It seems like just yesterday that David Eric Grohl was simply known as “the drummer from Nirvana. These days, though, Grohl has pounded his way in to rock and roll history as one of music’s greatest artists. His work with the Foo Fighters is legendary, launching that band to the top of the modern rock scene, and his session work with some of music’s biggest acts only adds to the impressive resume that Grohl represents.

Being at the top of the heap, though, didn’t seem to be enough for Grohl. Last year, Dave dropped the bombshell that Foo Fighters were taking an indefinite hiatus, a move that had everyone scratching their head as to why? The answer to that question came for many in the news that Grohl was adding yet another notch to his already hole-filled belt. Film documentarian and director.

His topic of choice was close to his heart. Sound City Studios, located in Van Nuys, California was where Nirvana recorded possibly the greatest album of all time – Nevermind – in 1991. When Grohl heard that the studio was closing in 2011 due to financial demise, he jumped on the opportunity to tell the story of one of rock and roll’s most hallowed grounds and the impact it had on the music industry as a whole.

You see, Sound City was really nothing special when it first opened in 1969. A dirty, unkempt hole in the wall, the studio had a hard time keeping up with some of the more glamorous studios in the Los Angeles area. But it did have one thing going for it: an undeniable acoustic element that made drums “sound” better than anywhere else on the planet.

Through interviews, footage and meticulous fact-finding, Grohl is able to – almost seamlessly – piece together the 40+ year history of the place described as “magical” by many of music’s top acts. Sound City is responsible for the creation of such bands as Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the roster of talent that have cut records there reads like a “who’s who” of rock history. Neil Young, Joe Cocker, Elton John, The Grateful Dead, and others all recorded records there during the 1970s.

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Like most studios back then, though, Sound City had trouble keeping their studios booked and turning profit. That all changed when the owner rolled the dice and spent a fortune on a custom-built sound board – a Neve 8028 analog mixing console. The move immediately vaulted the studio to the top of the heap, and bands lined up to lay tracks on the 16-track, one-of-a-kind technological wonder. Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Barry Manilow, Pat Benetar and countless other acts all tracked albums during the 80s that have stood the test of time even today – and much of that is accredited to the great sound they were able to record through the Neve board.

A good portion of the film surrounds the relationship teen heartthrob Rick Springfield had with the studio and its staff – being taken under wing by the owner, and eventually marrying a receptionist there. The sound of the studio didn’t make Springfield’s career, but the support he received on all levels by the caring, nurturing people there did. But that’s only a small part of the story.

After Nirvana recorded Nevermind, the studio saw a huge surge in popularity as almost everyone wanted to record at the now-legendary temple of rock. Rage Against The Machine, Tool, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, The Black Crowes and Nine Inch Nails are only a small sample of the acts that hoped to catch “lightning in a bottle” over the last twenty years, and the film captures step after step of rock greatness.

Inevitably, though, all good things must come to an end, and as the CD and digital age of music approached, the studio struggled to maintain clientele. After all, who needed a studio with analog equipment when there was Pro Tools, drum machines and other innovations at their disposal? Sure, there were the old-school artists like Queens of the Stone Age and Wolfmother that still loved the raw sound of analog recording – but the occasional session wasn’t enough to pay the bills, and the studio closed its doors to commercial recordings last year ending an era of some of the greatest music ever recorded.

For Grohl, the story just couldn’t end there. In what felt like more of a move from the heart than any type of business decision, Grohl purchased the Neve 8028 from Studio City, moving in to his personal recording space. While it may have closed the book on the studio, it opened the window for possibly the best rock album of the last ten years.

You see, Grohl’s intention was to breathe new life into the old mixing board by recording an album on it. This album, however, was not going to be just any ol’ record. Grohl wanted to, instead, gather up everyone he could from Sound City’s mile-long roster to exclusive 24-hour individual sessions to write, jam, and record tracks for the film’s companion piece Sound City: Real To Reel. Let’s just say they came in drones…

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Sound City: Real To Reel

It’s been my opinion for years that the collaborative effort has been all but lost in modern music. Drums are tracked in New York, vocals get recorded in someone’s bedroom closet, and guitar tracks are rushed through while some mega-star is on vacation overseas. The days of the “jam” have basically been eliminated by the conveniences of technology and the internet – and it has really watered down the integrity of modern rock and roll.

Dave Grohl wants to remind you of what music is “supposed to” sound like, and does so by raising a profound middle finger to the whole age of digital. The album teems with raw energy and one-take recordings of some impressive songs that are as much of a trip down memory lane as they are a resurgence of some of rock’s most formidable acts.

From the opening track “Heaven and All” (featuring members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), you immediately understand the intent of the album: loose heavy jams that are dripping sweat through every chord. Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford (Rage Against The Machine) take their turn with the melodic but heavy “Time Slowing Down”, but both serve as just appetizers to the first real gem on the album – “You Can’t Fix This.”

This first of many amazing tracks features Fleetwood Mac’s resident siren, Stevie Nicks in probably her strongest vocal performance in years. It’s softer and more drawn out, but that only adds to its haunting feel. Grohl and fellow Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins join Rami Jaffe from the Wallflowers, but the attention here solely belongs to Nicks. The instruments give way to the vocals, and the end result is magic.

Up next is the surprisingly powerful “Man That Never Was” featuring the aforementioned Rick Springfield on vocals. The former actor-cum-rocker delivers a performance filled with energy, passion and downright heaviness. Who knew he still had it in him?

Punk legend and Fear frontman Lee Ving scowls his way through “Your Wife Is Calling,” a great tribute to the underground punk sound of the 80s, while Slipknot/Stone Sour commander Corey Taylor belts out a modern rock masterpiece with “From Can To Can’t”. With so many varieties of sound and different contributions from artists young and old, you would think the album would have trouble staying cohesive, but such is not the case.

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In fact, even the mid-tempo vibe of “Centipede” (featuring Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme) and the rock radio sound of  “A Trick With No Sleeve” (with Eleven’s Alain Johannes) fit perfectly in place here, but again – feel like stepping stones leading to the album’s next monster track – “Cut Me Some Slack”.

If you watched the film first, you were able to witness the creation of the track that joins Paul McCartney with a “reunited Nirvana” (with Krist Novoselic & Pat Smear) and ends up as a perfect example of impromptu songwriting that works – probably better than it should, given the unusual collaboration. It’s a little dirty, and a bit sloppy – but exactly what you would get after a hard day of jamming out in the garage all day.

For as popular as McCartney is, Jim Keitner may be the complete opposite for most music fans – but his role in rock history is no less important. He’s played drums for everyone from the Beatles, Roy Orbison, and Neil Young to Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Alice Cooper. Grohl, alongside Jayhawks violinist Jessy Greene, joins Keitner in the softer, more delicate “If I Were Me”. Considering Grohl appears on every track on the record, it’s not surprising that at least one would sound like a Foo Fighters song, and this is the guilty party. Not like that’s a bad thing…

Possibly the most interesting offering on Real To Reel was saved for last, as Grohl and Homme bring the master Trent Reznor along for a genius-versus-genius-versus-genius exploration into sound that blends the styles of all three into a quirky, mesmerizing tidal wave of epic perfection. Yes, “Mantra” is that good…

The album and the movie are the perfect companions to each other, yet both stand alone as outstanding pieces of work. As a musician, Grohl again puts his midas touch on every single track. I think one would be hard pressed to find a better rock album or one filled with more heart, soul, and respect for an age that has pretty much disappeared.

The film, though, is something even more special. You don’t have to be a band geek or rock historian to realize what Sound City did for music and for the artists it recorded. The movie is simply a wonderful story and great piece of Americana — with a soundtrack to match.

10/10

Both CD and DVD/BluRay available now.

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