The Sound of Sound City : Play Loudly and Smile

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By now, much has been written about Sound City : Real to Reel  a wonderful documentary by musician Dave Grohl about the recording studio whence came his beloved Neve mixing board upon the business' sad closure. This film gives us an invaluable peek inside the process of making music and passion behind those of us who make it. Its a great documentary and essential viewing even for the casual music fan who might want to nudge up their insider knowledge a notch or three. 


However, I've not read a whole lot about how the soundtrack to the film -- and the commemorative soundtrack album -- actually sounds. So that is my focus for this review.


I just got my copy of the two LP set plus a Blu-ray Disc of Sound City : Real to Reel via the folks at PopMarket.com (which had a great 24 hour sale of the pair for $33 shipping included).  


Not surprisingly, the tracks have a consistency of sound and production approach which makes for a compelling and consistent listen. You can easily file this album under Foo Fighters.


Everyone playing on this album had done some recording at Sound City studios at one time or another and that is the thread that connects them into a kind of rock and roll royal family. 


What I re-discovered in preparing this review is the inherent joy of listening to an essentially all analog recording made through vintage electronics such as the Neve board. You see, you can turn up the volume on your stereo while listening to a record like this and your ears won't shudder in pain.  In fact, it will sound really great. I'm not endorsing dangerously loud listening levels here, but the reality is that some music is meant to be played loudly. John Lennon's classic solo single "Cold Turkey" had the words PLAY LOUD inscribed on the record label. If I were still in college, Sound City : Real to Reel is probably the kind of record that might inspire me to stick their speakers out my dorm room window to play for all to hear and groove on.


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The first track sung by Robert Levon of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Heaven and All," is a fairly dense classic hard rock affair. This is a good thing -- you'll probably want to turn the volume up on this one. "Time Slowing Down" with Chris Goss, is a bit brighter and sounding not all that dissimilar to some tracks on the newest Queens of the Stone Age (QOTSA) album ...Like Clockwork. (surprise: Dave Grohl plays drums on the new QOTSA album!). 


This is a good thing -- turn this one up too. 


"You Can't Fix This," led by Stevie Nicks, got me to turn up the stereo louder still because I wanted to see how the drums in particular held up on this (surprise!) Fleetwood Mac sounding pop tune. The sound is pretty huge!


Rick Springfield's song "The Man That Never Was" is remarkable because, honestly, if you hadn't told me it was Rick Springfield I might have thought it was a Foo Fighters tune. 


Oh, right. The players on that tune are in fact The Foo Fighters and they kind of wrote it together. This is cool. Makes me want to check out Rick Springfield's music (which I admit I never listened to beyond what was played on the radio back in the day; a lot of people I respect seem to revere him, so perhaps I missed something -- more new music to explore!)


And, yeah, I turned this one up too.


Lee Ving's "Your WIfe is Calling" is a trippy little punk tune that sounds just amazing pushing my tube pre-amp pretty loudly. 


Really, if you like electric guitar tones and drums that rock really amazingly when you turn up your stereo, this album may be for you.


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Corey Taylor's "From Can To Can't" is kind of a metal twist wrapping around the riff from John Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" on Abbey Road and sounds almost as cool. Layered dense guitars and throbbing pulsing bass sound remarkably distinct at a point where they should sound completely mushy. It was a stroke of genius to have Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen play lead guitar on this Beatle-inspired tune and his work is riveting -- especially since you get to see him lay down the solos in the bonus videos on the Blu-ray Disc of the Sound City movie.


Curiously, it is QOTSA front man Joshua Homme's "Centipede" that provides the first respite from the barrage of electric guitars and its a lovely quirky folk type tune -- at least the first half of it -- with a near prog-rock sensibility about it as it slams into a wall of metal guitars playing a circular riff reminiscent of a Irish jig. Now it sounds like QOTSA!  


(Yeah, crank the volume on this one too).


"A Trick With No Sleeve" is sounding like... hmmm... another cool QOTSA track... and this is no surprise since singer Alain Johannes has been in QOTSA and also Them Crooked Vultures, a side project featuring Dave Grohl and QOTSA lead man Johsua Homme (see above).


Analog. Rock. Volume.


Analog. Rock. Volume.


"Cut Me Some Slack" is the so called Nirvana reunion which it really isn't since Paul McCartney isn't Kurt Cobain and vice versa. Happily, this song doesn't sound like a QOTSA tune! But it also doesn't sound particularly Nirvana-ish or even overtly McCartney-ish to my ear. Sure, its got a bit of the Helter Skelter vibe going on in there. But I see it as its own thing and taken at face value, its really kinda fun hearing some great musicians vibing on one another.  


The last two tunes (all of side D on the LP) are both sung by Dave Grohl. The first one, "If I Were Me" reminds me of some of the acoustic tracks he did on the Foo Fighter's In Your Honor (bonus disc); it captures a beautiful acoustic guitar room sound coupled with a haunting string section. Believe it or not, you may want to turn this one up too as you can really hear the qualities of the Neve 8028 console capturing the essence of the instruments and the breathiness of Grohl's vocal. Likewise, "Mantra" delivers a nice warm drum sound with the songs that builds in a way that lets you hear all the instruments as they layer up into a dense barrage wall of sound. 


All in all, if you like hard rock and analog flavored recordings that will let you push the tubes of your amp, the LP version of Sound City is the thing to get. The vinyl is dead quiet and perfectly centered on nice dark thick 180-gram long playing discs. The discs even come in their own plastic lined sleeves.


Even the accompanying MP3 downloads sound remarkably warm all things considered (I could feel the digital edges as I tried to play these tracks louder, but still it sounds decent enough for the car). 


The PCM 5.1 surround soundtrack on the Blu-ray Disc of the actual film is simple, basic and effective for a documentary. This movie doesn't really warrant an intense immersive mix, so the focus is largely on the front mostly stereo mix, with the surrounds used for ambiance on bigger music snippets throughout the film. 


And... of course... it sounds just great when you turn it up loud! 


If you like movies about rock and roll and want an important lesson in both the history and process of pop music making, Sound City is essential viewing. If you would like to hear new rock and roll that you can play loud like you -- or your Dad -- used to, Sound City : Real To Reel might be a great place to start.


This album easily goes to 11.


Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com.  He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com. 

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