Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Van Halen: Decrepitude

Imagine you're just past your fifteenth birthday. Your favorite band in the world has broken up and reformed around a singer of moderate but questionable talents. Your hopes are reserved, but high despite it all. After all, it's the guitar player who you worship and admire, wish you could spend a night drinking beers with. You come from the mall with a brand new long playing record of this newly pressed album. What's the last thing you'd want to hear?

If you were me in March of 1986 with a copy of 5150, that would be "Good Enough", the opening track. It's a crassly obvious and labored attempt at recreating the old Dave sound. Sammy Hagar tries witlessly to recreate the feeling of effortless innuendo spoken over Eddie's sly guitar grooves. It's frankly straight out embarrassing, even for a fifteen year old.

The follow-up, "Why Can't This Be Love?" was the kind of cloying hit attempt that was obvious would sound dated before it was released. I've got nothing nice to say about this one. The lyrics are pitiful, the music is... of its time, to be kind.

With "Get Up", the album does come to some kind of life. This is what this album should have sounded like. Sammy brings the kind of swagger and energy that made him moderately successful as the lead singer of Montrose and as a solo artist, and makes no overt attempts at Dave-ness. It's bold and bombastic. The band brings their strengths, with a scorching and playful backing part.

From there we don't get a chance to ride or enjoy that energy as we move right into a keyboard part that seems a little too much like "1984", the instrumental intro to the monster hit "Jump", again reminding us too much of the previous album. But instead of that energetic song, we get "Dreams", which sounds like a song rejected from a Cannon Films rip-off of The Karate Kid.

"Summer Nights" is trite and dull-witted, but the energy level of all is high enough to offer a pass. If this was one of the lesser songs or even the middle-ground, we'd be ok, but this is one of the highlights, and basically for factors that none of the players involved hadn't done better in their previous engagements.

"The Best of Both Worlds" is nice loose guitar riff laid under an energetic Sammy vocal, but again the trite lyrics frustrate. This would be worth complaining if it wasn't immediately followed by "Love Walks In", which is flat-out embarrassing lyrically.

"You lay your sanity on the line. Familiar faces familiar sights. Reach back, remember with all your might. There she stands in a silken gown, silver lights shining down."

Lyrical idiocy like that makes "The Best of Both Worlds" look like Lennon/McCartney in comparison... and the easy-going lyrics of the Dave-era sound like Baudelaire.

Listening to "5150", I'll have to give it some solid credit as well. It doesn't have a hit hook, but the backing track could have placed it solidly on any of the previous eras albums and Sammy gives a solid vocal effort without any sign of mimicking Dave's style. It's certainly dated in its production and texture, but like "Summer Nights" would have been a solid base on a good album.

"Inside" lays a funky groove that sounds nothing quite like Sammy or Van Halen had ever explored before. It's not entirely successful, but it signals more interesting intentions from all involved than simply repeating either of their previous efforts.

Listening to this album now, with the intention of being as fair to it as I'm able, I can't help seeing that the most difficult issue was that they never got any chance to gel as a band. I remember when they first announced that Sammy would be the new singer, there was a lot of talk of influences, like the Dave Clark Five, that they shared and how this was going to be a new sound. I can't help wondering what this group of four guys could have sounded like if they'd had a chance to play clubs and build something together instead of rushing to beat Dave's album out of the gate and just smashing their two sounds together, wrapping it up and seeing what happened.

Coming back from a big tour, celebrating the alleged success of this blending, they came back with OU812.

"Mine All Mine" signals a return to their non-roots. It's little more than a repeat of "Dreams" with a little extra '80s-ness added for bonus points. This is followed by the even more comfortably repeating themselves hit "When It's Love". Sacrificing any hope of the freshness of their earlier version, they're now clearly content to imitate Peter Cetera's solo material and join him in the background of every mullet-headed wedding from there on out.

"A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)" almost brings some energy to the proceedings. Despite the silly and dated initials for their own sake, standing merely for "All Fired Up", which would seem a perfectly valid title to most, this at least sounds like a band with a sound. It's the first song here that's not too bad. Again, like "Summer Nights", this would work just fine as a weak link on a better album.

This slides into the easy groove of "Cabo Wabo". Again, nothing too special here. Sammy and Van Halen have both done better than this apart, but it's a pleasant, if overlong rocker, celebrating sunshine and drunkenness below the border. Two songs in a row, this band is starting to finally sound like something of its own, even if it remains less than the sum of its parts.

The energy level of "Source of Infection" could almost fool a listener into thinking they were creating something worth being excited over. I guess the continuing sound of a new band, no matter dull that band might be, has overwhelmed them.

Of course, anyone hoping this might continue in this direction will be disappointed. "Feels So Good" opens with a keyboard piece that would have made A Flock of Seagulls blush from the wussy '80s-ness. With lyrics stolen right from the selection at the easy listening remainders shelf, there's nothing to recommend this, except as a way to stall up this album before it showed anything that suggested potential.

"Finish What Ya Started" is my favorite of the Sammy-era Van Halen singles, which isn't, I suppose, high praise. It certainly is derivative of any of a million '70s era rockers, but largely some pretty decent ones. Sammy's view of sex remains much less fun than Dave's had been, and I remain a little concerned about the content of the lyrics, but there's a looseness to it that does sound like they've found something they all enjoy playing.

Of course, the possibility of sex being viewed in humorless and uncomfortable terms is brought fully into focus by the next song, "Black and Blue". It's too bad, it's a solid groove they lay under it, and the lyrics could have worked in song that was willing to wink a little more at them, or drive them straight on home, as it were. This uneasy mix just leaves hanging there, never seeming like an invitation to a good time, but merely like a threat. There's no "do it 'till it hurts, 'cos I know that's how you like it" to in the lyrics or the tone.

"Sucker in a 3 Piece" continues the uncomfortable attitude toward sex, this time returning to faux Dave territory in places, and never managing to catch a groove. This album is more interesting on some level of analysis than its predecessor, and it's a ton closer to sounding like a real band than two semi-matched parts pressed together, but it still can't manage to be anything I could understand putting on to listen to.

The album closes with a cover of Little Feat's "Apolitical Blues". It's an interesting choice. Fresh sounding and lively. This would have been a great closer to the version of this album that managed to work.

Two albums in and the new Sammy Hagar led Van Halen remains dying on the vine. Sometimes it sounds like Sammy, sometimes like Van Halen, but only rarely like itself and even more rarely like anything much worth listening to. They've failed to even achieve a single song that sounds as fresh as even the worst of their material with Dave or the most mediocre of Sammy's solo material. What should have been a fresh start for all involved, a chance for a new synergy, has only led to a dull decrepitude.

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