Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Van Halen: Hair of the dog

If Van Halen and Van Halen II are the long party on Saturday night, then Women and Children First and Fair Warning are the slow hungover next morning.

"And the Cradle Will Rock..." is the hair of the dog (but it should still not be confused with Hair of the Dog). It struggles to regain the party feeling, but it can't help snarling and growling it out. It says "Rock on!", but can't help feeling more like a threat than an invitation. "Everybody Wants Some!!" goes even deeper. The cold beer of "Cradle..." is now kicked back with a couple of shots, but the hardness remains, it's just staggering about trying to pretend the party is still going.

None of this is intended to dismiss this material, in fact, I think it enriches the material to have some edge. This lacks the sarcastic quality of the earlier "party" albums, where we're clearly not supposed to take any of the emotions expressed too seriously. Here, they obviously mean it.

"Fools" may be the most genuinely frustrated and angry song of teenage angst I've ever heard. In fact, it shows the age of the band - mid-20s at this point - with it lack of petulance. This is teenage angst as mature confusion and anger.

"Romeo Delight" gives up all but the barest pretense of being a party song. Sure, the chorus starts, "I'm takin' whiskey to the party tonight and I'm lookin' for somebody to squeeze.", but follows that with "Hear you're lookin' for somebody to fight. Baby, don't get uptight! Baby, please!" This party doesn't actually sound like it will be a lot of fun. And this is before the song collapses into an exhausted chant of "Baby please, I can't take it anymore!"

This isn't fun any more. From here we start side 2, or did back in the day, with "Tora! Tora!", which is dank guitar intro to "Loss of Control". "Loss of Control" is as manic as it sounds like it should be, driven by Alex Van Halen's seemingly chaotic drum beats, this song is loud and confused. It wants to be a joke, but somehow the shouted chorus of "Loss of control, loss of control, loss of control!" is hard to ignore.

We'll slow down here into what sounds like it should be a groovy aside, in the vein of "Ice Cream Man", but turns out to be a rather dark story of a man who's "woman" is warning him off the effects of his excessive drinking, "Well, I think that you're headed for a whole lotta trouble..."

"Could This Be Magic?" picks up and tries the humorous vein, but even then the band isn't able to get through a cute ditty about magic and love without an extended riff on tragedy and sinking ships. At this point, we've forgotten there was a party.

We close out the first of the morning after records with "In a Simple Rhyme", which a quick scan of the lyrics makes sound like an ordinary pop love song, but that misses the dark tone of the music and the pure desperation with which Dave cries out, "Needed a girl to call my one and only. Is that you?"

The second half of the long dark day after begins with little hope. "Mean Streets" is a genuinely bleak song. Expertly performed and adult in both theme and style. All hope of another party ends right here.

"Dirty Movies" is not one of the highlights. The lyrics which attempt to celebrate or mock, it's not entirely clear from Dave's performance, a woman who has gone on from high school into "dirty movies", but the music is so drudging and dark that it never finds a point where the two can meet. "Sinner's Swing!" will continue this tonal disconnect, although with considerably more success. It's a dark groove.

"I Don't Wanna Hear About It Later" is ultimately a trifle. It rocks, but it's unclear where its going. The day after feeling linger uncomfortably here. But we move straight from there into one last attempt at a party song, at least in tone. Elsewhere, out of context, this could be just that, but here the chorus cry of "Change, nothin' stays the same. Unchained, and you hit the ground running..." comes across as a loud lament of a band that is no longer the kings of the party, but have grown into something else entirely, no matter how desperately they cling to the wild and comic break.

To follow is the slow blues groove of "Push Comes to Shove", which is outright depressing in its fatalistic chorus, "Believe it was inevitable. That's when push comes to shove. Could this be the one that got away?" There's no mistaking the intent here.

Now, here we come to "Sunday Afternoon in the Park", an absolutely gloomy dirge-like synthesizer instrumental that Eddie apparently told his new bride was written for her. As I recall, she said the wasn't sure what to make of that. That leads directly into the bitter but funky "One Foot Out the Door". If the band had broken up after this it would have been no surprise.

I'm curious how things would have gone if the band had continued down this path in a direct fashion. It certainly is their strongest period for me as an adult. The juxtaposition of tones, the musical experimentation and the deceptively simple lyrics. This is an incredible period of growth.

As it goes, the group would move in a much different direction.

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