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“More Dust than Devils: Exposing the Musical Banality and Scourging Depopulation of Sound City”

To Dave Grohl’s credit, in his documentary about the site of Nevermind’s creation called Sound City, he does a great job of mythologizing. The score is peppered with star cameos, from Tom Petty, to the members of Fleetwood Mac, to Neil Young, who does the best job of all of selling the film’s ethos: basically, that the low-tech studio that stood in the San Fernando Valley, while it was running, delivered a higher quality of rock and roll production.
It’s set up as a tearjerker — music studio opens up in the late ’60’s, inhabits an old, character-laden building and in time houses ghosts of a canon of classic rock acts, which also include REO Speedwagon, “Jesse’s Girl”’s own Rick Springfield, and a somewhat compelling punk act Fear, hailing from Philadelphia close to Grohl’s own native D.C.-area Virginia. These acts each drip a SPECIAL ornamental pattern onto the place’s history, and it really is a tragedy when it closes, because it’s the result of a program called Pro Tools, which is like machines stealing jobs from people.
Ahem. Let’s just start with Rage Against the Machine, shall we? Rage Against the Machine is one of the four key, hall-of-fame caliber rock acts to have recorded an initial album at Sound City, only to cut bait for the immediately ensuing, and go on to make better-produced records elsewhere.
The level to which the lyrics and histrionics on Evil Empire sky above those on the self-titled debut is utterly dizzying. While bland repetition and hopeless early-’90’s shmooze drape all but the entirety of RATM, Evil Empire’s executioner follow-through is typified, if at all, by one moment: the final verse on “Vietnow”: instead of “Turn on the radio / Nah fu** it turn it off,” the band is lost in a plea of rock distortion, literally, and lead vocalist Zach de la Rocha misses the return, so it’s just “Radio / Nah fu** it turn it off.” The result is, ironically, just what Sound City has claimed to be, and what Dave Grohl claims that it is: organic expression, the seamless work of artistic selves diffusing inimitably in a live setting. Where RATM beats tired old themes like dead horses for a bloated five or six minutes at a time, Evil Empire’s songs are short, crisp, mean, defiant and whip-cracking. They don’t beckon, they tell.
To Sound City’s credit, the Queens of the Stone Age installment from 2000 done there is enjoyable. So why did Rage opt to leave? Well, it happens that they went to a guy named Brendan O’Brien. Let’s just say if Brendan O’Brien had recorded Pearl Jam’s Ten, the debut, along with all their albums after that, I’d probably own Ten. As it is, my favorite Pearl Jam records are Vitalogy, No Code and Yield, each the work of O’Brien’s hands. His dispatching of the organ part on Vitalogy’s “Better Man” renders undeniable his musical understanding. I apologize for my belligerence antipathetic to the whole Sound City operation, but it’s simply impossible to overstate the valence of Brendan O’Brien’s repertoire, which includes the first three, key STP records too. Repeatedly, on Sound City, Dave Grohl readily admits to still “being a boy,” attached entirely to that original primitive sound board. But how much of this attachment is just financial (owner Tom Skeeter even confesses during the film of “wanting to make money”), and how appropriate that LA’s role in the stories of the two biggest Seattle bands amounts to the unadulterated fiduciary forgettable?

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