Foo Fighters SONIC HIGHWAYS

Twenty years into their career as one of the leading rock bands in the world, Foo Fighters continue to find ways to challenge both themselves and their listeners.

On “Sonic Highways,” a companion to the similarly named HBO television series, the Dave Grohl-fronted band, with assistance from producer Butch Vig, tasked itself with touching down in eight U.S. cities including New Orleans, exploring each town’s music history, and then writing and recording a song in that city influenced by what they discovered, often accompanied by a native son or daughter.

To its credit, the band avoids gimmickry. For example, in New Orleans, it recorded the mid-tempo “In The Clear” with the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but no one will mistake the tune for a typical Crescent City brass band parade. Instead, each city’s elements are incorporated into the Foo Fighters’ sound.

That’s not to say they didn’t find inventive ways to salute each locale. On the album’s best track, the thoughtful, driving “Congregation,” which features Zac Brown and was recorded at his Southern Ground studio in Nashville, the lyrics include “singing like a bluebird in the round,” a reference to famous songwriter venue, Bluebird Cafe. On the aggressive power pop of “What Did I Do/God As My Witness,” recorded in Austin, Grohl brings up the 13th floor, an insider reference to The 13th Floor Elevators, the influential-yet-obscure Roky Erickson-led psychedelic ’60s band from the Texas town. Such little treats exist in almost every song.

What has always made Foo Fighters’ music so appealing is that for all the metal bombast and thrash, the noise rarely comes at the sacrifice of melody. That remains truer than ever on this very worthwhile trip through America’s musical wonderland.

Melinda Newman

The Associated Press

Garth Brooks MAN AGAINST MACHINE

As would be expected, Garth Brooks strives for an epic statement on his re-entry into full-time recording, after a 13-year hiatus.

Unlike most modern male country stars, Brooks looks beyond partying and celebrating rural life on “Man Against Machine.” Like U2 or Bruce Springsteen, Brooks positions himself as a cultural figurehead who speaks for, and to, the common man.

To his credit, Brooks represents the middle class who work too many hours and devote their earnings to getting by in a society that’s “rotten to the core,” as he states in the title song, which pits a desperate man making a stand against an Orwellian power structure.

The album shows the influence of country rockers Jason Aldean and Eric Church in its heavy guitars and dark-hued themes. But he doesn’t go for auto-tuned vocals, rhythm loops or rapping. The songs are weighty and wordy, taking up where his albums “Scarecrow” and “In the Life of Chris Gaines” left off.

Some tunes — “She’s Tired of Boys” and “Midnight Train” — could benefit from the concise editing that defines the best country songwriting. However, the unabashed sentiment of “Mom,” the cowboy swing of “Rodeo and Juliet” and the jaunty, dobro-led “Wrong About You” suggest the possibilities of country music in the 2010s just as Brooks’ classics did in the 1990s.

Now, like then, Brooks’ desire to address life’s important themes should be welcomed into a country music scene that rarely shows such ambition these days.

Michael McCall

The Associated Press