Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Van Halen: Mid-life

Diver Down and 1984 probably seem an unlikely pairing for comparison for any but the most desperate attempt at looking at the works of Van Halen in album pairings. Perhaps I really am that desperate, but I think it makes sense.

Women and Children First and Fair Warning had been the growing up albums, and these, in turn are mid-life.

The first half of mid-life is messy and uneven. Here you can hear the band wanting to restore the party. The #1 Party Band in L.A. was approaching 30 and seeing their previous album sell less than anything before, they did what anyone would expect. They tried to bring back the party!

Going back to a Kinks cover right off the bat with "Where Have All the Good Times Gone!" It's impossible not to smell the desperation there. Add to that it's a rather dull and witless cover. "Hang 'Em High" does nothing to pick up the tone. It's high energy but strangely dull.

"Cathedral" is a neat little piece of synth music, but its ill-placement within this context shows the kind of scattershot approach the band was taking here. It leads in "Secrets", which is actually one of the gems on this, a nice smooth little song with nicely crafted lyrics, an easy-going style and a terrific solo.

"Intruder" is just a dull, overlong intro to their cover of "(Oh) Pretty Woman". I liked this combination when I was 12 a lot. Now, I can't see much to recommend either. It's a loud and dull cover of a song that's already an overrated part of Roy Orbison's repertoire. This is followed immediately by another cover of a well-known original, "Dancing in the Street". I may start some brief controversial thoughts by stating that I still think this is the best version of this song out there, from the spirited vocals to the driving synthesizer groove. Before anyone gets too excited, any which way, I think it's a lousy song, in all it many, many forms, so consider it faint praise at best.

"Little Guitars" is another example of solid, tight execution of a simple idea and nailing it. It's not going to change the world, but it certainly stands out on this album as one of the few things that doesn't feel like the musical equivalent of the 50-year bald guy with a ponytail driving around in a red convertible. In fact, it's a lot better than that even. This is what this album should have sounded like.

"Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)", likely a jab in the ribs to newlywed Eddie, is a cute little ditty, with a nice controlled guitar playing to show off his father, Jan van Halen, who plays a sweet clarinet part over the top. "The Full Bug" manages to bring things nearly to a close with another solid, well-crafted party-style song, which would have also been a fine closer. It's an amusing little bit of innuendo with a driving guitar rhythm.

The actual close is a cover of "Happy Trails". It's a nice example of the band doing four-part harmony with good humor. It's a good one to close something. I'm not sure if the unevenness of the album makes this perfect or if "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" doesn't make it feel redundant.

The Beach Boys recorded the uneven but entertaining Party! album before going back to record their masterpiece, Pet Sounds... after which, of course, there was a long period of uneven output.

Perhaps there's a principle to follow. I'm not sure 1984 surpasses the two dark period albums, but it certainly managed to bring together the spirit of the party period with the maturity and control of the dark period to create their most commercially viable, and successful, album to that point within a context of remaining a work that's well worth listening to. No small achievement for an album of that time.

Opening with "1984", which, as "Intruder" is clearly just an extended intro masquerading as an instrumental, but it certainly introduces a new sound, which is would be lead-off single "Jump", which you may already have heard somewhere or another. In the context of listening to their albums in order, it is clear how this stands out, and its deliciously cheesy synth hook and energetic vocal offer little to wonder how this became a hit.

Following with the balls out rocker "Panama", another hit, is a perfect choice. Anyone worried that the new Van Halen had become too new or mature was assured immediately with a burning guitar part and innuendo laced lyrics. The party rockers may have succeeded in growing up a little, but they weren't dead.

Now, when I say "Top Jimmy" defines why this album has the shit, please know I do understand not everybody will relate to this. This was my favorite song on this album when it was released and it remains so now. The tightly sweet harmonics as riff, the unleashed sound of the vocal, the screaming solo. This is why I fell in love with Van Halen. If I were to forget, this is what would remind me.

That slides into "Drop Dead Legs", which is an underrated little bit of Van Halen fueled blues rock. It's a party song, but with a nice disciplined bit of playing and some amusing bits of innuendo.

The second side opens with "Hot For Teacher", another overplayed song, but certainly it has a nice Alex led, drum fill-as-riff quality that drives under Dave's boozy take on the subject that certainly gives an energy that's hard to not continue to enjoy. This slides into "I'll Wait", which is the song that sounds most obviously dated on this album... in fact, on all of these albums. I certainly loved it at the time, and it does have nice faux r&b ballad quality and a mildly amusing story about a man obsessed with a supermodel from afar.

"Girl Gone Bad" sounds here like an outtake from Fair Warning, a near sequel to "Dirty Movies" without the aggressive energy. That energy was apparently reserved for "House of Pain" with its playful BDSM lyrics and grind-along guitar part. Unfortunately, all of that is for a song that never really gels, for lack of a hook or anything a listener can grab ahold of, over the top of the energy level.

So, the album sputters to a close, a brilliant side one and second side that hits and misses all over. It is, however, when the party rockers and the rocking musicians found a blend of styles that captured the larger public. It is, as the later version of the band might note, "the best of both worlds".

Not the best, listening to them all, I'm certain that Women and Children First is the best of the albums, wholly entertaining from beginning to end without offering any reason for a grown-up listener to feel embarrassed at listening to.

It is 1984 that would be the ghost both sides would chase after the breakup. The perfect storm, as it were.

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