Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Van Halen Remembers How To Not Suck

I feel like I've been waiting my whole life for this. My favorite band ever has reunited and made their first album together in 28 years, an album I've anticipated and feared in nearly equal measure for as long as I can remember. Anticipated, because it seems such a massive cosmic injustice that the band that so effortlessly fused Big Loud Rock with Disco Dance Party has spent the last three decades pointing fingers at each other, talking smack, and (worst of all) making bad records. I've missed this band's signature sound for my entire adult life, in no small part because even after all these years it remains sui generis, a totally unique sound that no other act has ever come near duplicating. Feared, because over the course of those three decades everyone involved has been diligently submitting proof that they've all forgotten how to do anything but suck.

Everybody loves original Van Halen. When you ask them (or at least, when I ask them), people invariably say, "I love original Van Halen, with David Lee Roth -- Van Hagar, not really." I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "I don't like Van Halen," and I don't think I have ever known anyone who preferred the Hagar era to the Roth era (though the Internet certainly tells a different story). I loved Roth-era Van Halen so much, I talked myself into the first two Sammy records just so I wouldn't have to let go. But even I never listened to Balance (the last record with Hagar) or Van Halen III (the one with Gary Cherone).

When they finally got back with Diamond Dave in 2007 and toured, I and quite a few of my friends went to see them to the tune of $150 a ticket. I can think of no better illustration of the early MTV generation's enduring love toward this band with this singer. Yet, oddly, my informal polling reveals that in the two weeks since Van Halen released A Different Kind of Truth, their first record with David Lee Roth since 1984, exactly nobody I know has listened to it. I say oddly because quite unlike the early '80s, it is possible to listen to most new albums (this one included) for free on Spotify or whatever. I have been listening to this thing a lot for the last two weeks and I want to talk to someone about it, but I can't because no one has heard it and apparently doesn't care to.

I can understand that: as much goodwill as the original band still enjoys (strangely, considering how little goodwill they had for each other), they did so, so, so much to wreck it in the last 15 years. First, under the expert tutelage of Sammy Hagar, they learned how to suck. They put out a few bad records. Their performances became erratic. And then they went on a Nixonesque firing spree, terminating Sammy Hagar, David Lee Roth, and Gary Cherone in a three-year period, and then firing Sammy Hagar again after a disastrous reunion tour a few years after that. They became the worst thing a rock band can be: they became a joke.

So even though they sounded great on the 2007 tour, even with Eddie Van Halen's 16-year-old son playing bass, and everybody went and everybody liked it, nobody seemed -- indeed, nobody seems, present tense -- to imagine that these dudes are even capable of making a decent record.

The early evidence was not promising: a month ahead of the album's release, a single called "Tattoo" hit YouTube, and although it was not altogether horrible, it didn't really feel like something they couldn't have done without Diamond Dave, or wouldn't have done with Sammy Hagar. I watched the video a few times and realized that, while the song was definitely not that great, the video was so bad that it actually made the song seem worse. (I appreciate that they made a performance video like the ones they made in the '80s, but not even bothering to sync the video with the song is a strange, strange choice.)

So I listened to it a few times without looking at the video, and it did indeed seem a little better (but still not that great) -- it feels like a conscious effort to revisit the crossover pop appeal of "Jump" without directly aping the song itself. It certainly sounded better to me than the two songs they did with Roth in 1996 when they did the big reunion headfake, "Me Wise Magic" and "Can't Get This Stuff No More." Those tunes sounded like unfinished Van Hagar riffs that they got Roth to write lyrics to, right down to the wet, chorus-pedal-y guitar tone that Eddie made his signature in the 90s. It's far from perfect, but still a step in the right direction, so I remained cautiously optimistic for the rest of the record (though I feared that I was just talking myself into it, the same way I did OU812). As it turns out, "Tattoo" is the first song on the album, which is a weird choice considering that tracks 2-13 are pretty much exactly what all the Van Halen fans like me have been waiting the last 28 years for. This album is loud, rude, fast, aggressive, and restores the sense of humor and mischief that Diamond Dave took home in the divorce. And, it occurs to me that skipping the first track, or even the first two tracks, on a Van Halen album is nothing new to me: I always skipped "You Really Got Me" and "Eruption," I always skipped "You're No Good" and "Dance The Night Away," and I always skipped "1984" and "Jump." So "Tattoo" falls into a grand tradition, and if you skip it and start with the second song, "She's the Woman," you immediately realize that THE IMPOSSIBLE HAS HAPPENED, and that you are listening to a new Van Halen record that actually sounds like Van Halen: propulsive, funky, hard-edged but not abrasive. "She's The Woman" has the same kind of grinding feel as "Mean Streets," only without the killer riff intro. (This song and five others are based on demos of old songs from Roth's original tenure, which some have leveled as criticism but I consider a non-issue.) Things stay promising with the first all-new song on the album, "You and Your Blues," which really should have been the first single: it's got more pop appeal and unlike "Tattoo" and every other song on the album, its lyrics aren't totally stupid. Instead, Roth recycles blues song titles in the service of a mid-tempo kiss-off to a depressive lover. (One might also read a kiss-off to the melancholy style of Van Hagar into those lyrics, if one were so inclined). Then, with "China Town," we finally, FINALLY hear the return of the thing that has been totally absent since Roth left the band and what made them so distinctive: the boogie beat, previously used to such great effect on "I'm The One" and "Hot For Teacher" and "The Full Bug" and several others; the exuberant, too-fast-to-dance-to, impossible-not-to-try beat. I guess they missed this beat as much as I did, because it shows up on a couple of other songs on the record: "As Is," which reminds me of "Sinner's Swing" from Fair Warning; and "Stay Frosty," an overt homage to "Ice Cream Man," from their debut album. Alex Van Halen, by the way, is an absolute monster on this record, and on the boogie-beat songs in particular. As for David Lee Roth, he sounds good, if a little strained at times. (I have a feeling he needed a lot of takes to sing some of these.) But Roth's vocal prowess was never his strength, nor was his gift for meaningful, insightful lyrics. Just like on all his past efforts with this band, his lyrics consist of memorable one-liners strung together with nonsense. There is no narrative, no message, no deeper meaning. (Having said that, he does uncork a few great lines: "Some days you're the dog, some days you're the hydrant"; "God is love, but get it in writing"; "Love 'em all, I says -- let Cupid sort 'em out!") He is the kind of singer who gets by on pure attitude and enthusiasm, who makes every song sound more like a party than a bloodless exercise in rock virtuosity -- which is what most of the band's work with Sammy Hagar sounded like.
All is once again as it should be
(except for that headset mic)
The clean-tone arpeggiated intro that kicks off "Blood and Fire" made me a little nervous that that style was about to creep back into the mix, but it thankfully doesn't, and here Roth sings some nonsense lyrics that nonetheless convey a spirit of triumph and seem to directly address the band's toxic history without really saying anything about it except that it sucked. And even though this is definitely a rock song, nowhere near a ballad, it is the last light moment on this record for a while, as the next five tunes are pummeling rockers. The word "Love" is not in the title of any of them, and the chorus pedal is nowhere to be found. I've written about this before, but I've slowly come to feel that adding Wolfgang Van Halen to the band is the best thing they could have done. Like any 20-year-old, the kid wants to rock, and like any parent to a 20-year-old, Eddie wants to do whatever he has to do to make his kid think he's cool, and even if that means ditching the harmonizer and the TransTrem, Eddie is all "sure thing buddy, I'll drive, popcorn's on me!" Michael Anthony was a great part of the band once upon a time, but Eddie did have a tendency to keep him down in the mix -- you can actually hear him getting turned down on "So This Is Love?" from Fair Warning -- but when it's his own son playing bass, he's more inclined to bring him up in the mix and the kid more than acquits himself, playing more active and inventive lines than Anthony tended toward. I have a feeling that Wolfgang's favorite Van Halen record is Women and Children First, because most of the all-new songs sound like they could be on that record, particularly "As Is" and "Honeybabysweetiedoll." Also because they played "Romeo Delight," one of the heaviest tunes in the band's entire early catalog, on every date of the 2007 tour (which Wolfgang supposedly wrote the setlist for) and they're also playing it on the current tour. I can't think of anything at all wrong with the spirit of Women and Children First guiding Van Halen Mark IV's efforts, now or in the future. It's not without a problem or two. Even though the tone is perfect, and the spirit is exactly as it should be, and there are no (no! none! zero!) ballads, and all the Van Halens are playing brilliantly and Dave is tossing out one-liners like he's been saving them up for 20 years, the big, memorable riffs are in short supply. There's no monster riff like "Unchained," or "Panama" that makes you want to grab your guitar and try and figure it out. It's also too long by 3 or 4 songs: as I mentioned, it would have been better without "Tattoo"; "The Trouble With Never" is a little too close to a Hendrix song ("Crosstown Traffic," to be exact) for comfort; and "Beats Workin'" feels like filler stuck at the end. Cut off three tunes and you've got a 35-minute Van Halen album that feels of a piece with the rest of the Roth-era records. But having said all that, the fact that there is a new Van Halen song that sounds like "Ice Cream Man" ("Stay Frosty") is cause to rejoice. My biggest worry about a new Van Halen record wasn't that it would be bad. Edward Van Halen and his brother don't know how to make a bad record. But they sure as shit know how to make a lame one, as they proved throughout Hagar's tenure and into Cherone's. My biggest fear was that they'd drag David Lee Roth down into anther limp, boring, adult-oriented-rock album, and I'm happy to say that whatever its other faults, this is not a lame record (if you do like I told you and skip "Tattoo"). It pushes all the same buttons that their early records pushed, buttons the band couldn't even find from 1985 to the present (and no other band has ever been able to find at all). That "Panama" and "Hot For Teacher" and "Unchained" left a smoking hole where those buttons used to be shouldn't detract from the fact that "Stay Frosty" and "As Is" and "She's The Woman" push the same buttons more than well enough to turn the little light on. But I think the best compliment I can pay this record is that once I started listening to it, I haven't been able to stop. The songs got in my head and made me want to listen to them, to hear all the buried layers and get as familiar with them as I am with Fair Warning and 1984. Even more surprisingly, I found myself wanting to go see them play these new songs live. For whatever reason -- and I'm on the record as to what I think the reason is -- they seem to have remembered what they're good at, and as importantly, how to do it. I am completely shocked that I like this record as much as I do, and the biggest surprise of all is that I am now finding myself sincerely looking forward to hearing what their next record sounds like, when Wolfgang is even more settled into the band and the pressure of this big reunion has been released. These guys are capable of big things, and they may be going places. Keep your eye on them! PS -- All of that said, Dave needs to lose that headset mic. It's embarrassing, and cured me of my urge to go see the tour.

1 comment:

  1. To address your post back-asswards, totally agree on the headset mic. That's ok for Disney on Ice, in general is only slightly cooler than a bluetooth, but is just super, super, SUPER lame.

    That said, you're really not going to see this tour, with Eddie playing far better than he was in 07 (even though he's chubby and dressing like a dad) and when you are admittedly excited to see some of the new songs live??

    The intro to 'Blood and Fire' is from an old Eddie instrumental 'Ripley'(named after a short-lived stereo guitar made my Kramer) so even though it sounds a bit like a maudlin Van Hagarism, it actually dates back to just before those horrible days - 1985.

    I agree with much of what you've said.. differ on a few songs.. but am down with your appraisal of the album in general.. but I esp. disagree that Beats Workin' sounds like filler. When you bemoan the lack of monster riffs, I think you're forgetting this one (as well as big river).. both riffs from the mid-seventies, albeit ones from songs that never made it onto an album before...

    I also think that you're being unfair to Me Wise Magic.. just having dave there pushes those competitve buttons in Eddie and he shreds like he hadn't since the second side of 1984... and Mikey's background vocals!

    You're right though.. Eddie never let MA play much and always had him down ridiculously low in the mix.. that's not going to happen anymore.

    It's not VH without MA but if it wasn't for Wolfie, there'd be no reunion with Dave so it's a moot point.