Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Van Halen: Monsters

I have an issue that dances around my mind occasionally.

There's really nothing wrong with the last few records by The Rolling Stones.

In fact, if you took The Stones out of it and you just handed me a copy of A Bigger Bang, and it was by some hot new band, I'd listen to repeatedly. I'd recommend it to other people. It'd be the subject of much praise by me. And yet, since it is The Stones, I can't help but remember I have a copy Sticky Fingers that could be playing instead.

In 1988, Van Halen headlined the Monsters of Rock Tour, traveling with the likes of The Scorpions and Metallica. They would return to the studio sounding a bit like a '70s heavy metal band that had started out opening for Rainbow and Judas Priest. In fairness, I should start this by stating, if the albums that followed had been by that band, I would actually like them more. The embarrassing over-earnestness of the lyrics is the type of thing I'm so used to forgiving in that kind of band, that I generally do it without thinking.

Van Halen made their reputation, in the world as well as my heart, with material that eschewed that kind of thing easily and entertainingly.

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge takes its name from a popular but silly urban legend surrounding the etymology of the word "fuck". Frankly, this was an early sticking point for me with my willingness to give it a chance. I can't say for sure why it sounds earnest and not playful when I hear or see it, but it does.

"Poundcake" starts thing off with real energy and playfulness. If one gets over the fact that fucking Sammy Hagar sounds kind of distasteful, based on his own descriptions, there's nothing wrong here. "Judgment Day" continues the rocking forward. Again, nothing special, but certainly nothing wrong. Straight ahead hard rock music. Over the previous albums by this line-up, this clearly sounds like its own band.

"Spanked" is particularly frustrating. It's the first song here that would be particularly memorable musically, but its phone sex lyrics, "All you bad, bad boys, call her up on the spank line", totally, totally suck. "Runaround" returns to that easily dated sound of the previous albums, but certainly continues the high energy feeling that's begun here.

Things actually get kind of cool with Pleasure Dome. There's a playful quality here to the musicianship that's rarely showed up this obviously in the Sammy-era. This is the first thing I've found from this era that I feel like I'll listen to by choice after I'm done with this re-exploration.

"In 'n' Out" is not half bad as a play on words. It's not a sex song, but a song about debt, and how "They got you goin' in, they got you comin' out..." It's a nice, if unmemorable, blue collar rocker. "Man on a Mission" is another sex song, and another awkward reminder that Sammy seems like a really creepy dude. Please, people, don't fuck this guy!

"The Dream is Over" is an angry political protest song, whose meaning and intentions I'm unable to completely grasp. I'd be happy to take the blame, but I'm not sure the song is good enough to bother feeling much guilt over.

So... "Right Now", that's... memorable... Right? You remember it. Presumably, you kind of wish you didn't, but nevertheless you do. In fairness, I have to say, the jazzy little piano part that opens it up is damn good. As an instrumental or presumably with a singer willing or able to bring something subtler to it, this could have been a killer number.

"316" is a return to the instrumental. This one, continuing the trend of Eddie's obvious connection to numbers, is named for the birthday of his son Wolfgang. It's a nice break from the bombast of the album and shows a guitarist still interested in music with more interesting textures. "Top of the World" closes the proceedings out. It's passable and energetic.

I'm going pause here at the end of this album to digress, despite the fact that the pairing of these two albums once again proves the value of this review method.

I was having an email exchange with my friend Jo, and I mentioned this casually, and the difficulty I'm having with this section of the review process. She asked why I was doing this. Why I wasn't merely celebrating the albums I loved and letting it go at that.

I replied that I'd been meaning to revisit the whole Van Halen history since reading Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga by Ian Christe, as well as Losing It: And Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time by Valerie Bertinelli, if you must know.

"I wanted to verify that I hadn't just knee-jerked 20 years ago and not been willing to back down from the same opinion I'd formed when I was fifteen," I wrote, "And writing about them forces me to some extent to actually consider my reactions and not merely to shrug it off."

Then I wrote, "That goddamn album came out and I was 15 years old. Barely 15. I read all the stupid magazines about all the controversy and I was totally committed to being on the band's side. I mean, Dave was a jackass, ran off and made a shitty EP of lame covers and whatever... Now, they were back to show us how it was done.

"And, well, yeah... I still, every single time [they came out with a new album] wanted them to be something I wanted to hear, to be something! And they got more and more popular and it seemed more and more jackassish every year to feel like one of those people who just can't accept change."

I've been writing the word "forgettable" over and over in writing about For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I've deleted some, and probably still left in too many. It's hard to avoid. The material, aside from when it's annoying, is not only forgettable, it's instantly forgettable. I have to listen to songs repeatedly in order to place what brief sentence or two I can write about it.

But fifteen year old Neil would not have sat on his bed, feeling betrayed and frustrated if this had been the album this band had released in 1986. It sounds like its own band, not a pale shadow of some other bands. It's just not a very exciting band, and certainly not a band who continues to feel fresh decades later. But they play with real energy and intensity, occasionally even some creativity.

Not to mention, I was fifteen and a virgin. I'd have had no real understanding how creepy all of Sammy's sexual attitudes are.

So, this would have gotten some regular play on my turntable and led to some genuine excitement about where they might go from here.

Balance opens with "The Seventh Seal", which is actually not only good but memorable. Frankly, if I weren't a Bergman fan who has trouble not feeling embarrassed for Bergman and for Van Halen when Sammy shouts things like, "So take me down to the virgin spring, wash away my suffering", then I'd call this the best song of the Sammy-era so far. Instead it falls short of "Pleasure Dome", but still makes the second Sammy song I'll likely listen to once I've completed this project.

My recollection is that Sammy said that "Can't Stop Lovin' You" was written to understand his wife's feelings during their divorce. I'll start my review of this song by noting, if that's true and I were Sammy's wife, I'd crush his dick beneath my boot heel. Since I'm not Sammy's wife, I'll acknowledge, it's pretty ok for a Van Hagar "power ballad". It starts with a nice country rock vibe. It dips too far into generic power ballad territory after the first chorus, but it's ok at what it is.

"Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)" is ass. It's repetitive and stupid. I don't have the energy to explain this one.

Did you know you can buy weed in "Amsterdam"? Apparently the Dutch born Van Halen brothers didn't get excited about this until 1995. I'd like to be able to make a funny like, "At least it's a stone groove", but, let's face it, it's not.

"Big Fat Money" seems to have brought some energy back to table. Eddie's playing has a old school Scotty Moore texture, which is kind of cool. It's too bad all of this energy and talent is put to such poor use. Again, this would be just fine as a weak track on a great album, but an album where this is among the highlights?

"Strung Out" is a really cool instrumental played on piano strings with objects thrown at it. Eddie once again shows a tremendous musical inventiveness that seems to be crushed beneath Sammy's dullness. This is demonstrated by the fact that it's used here as a lead in to the seemingly sincere but trite and overblown power ballad "Not Enough".

It should surprise no one that the band had been covering The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" on the preceding tour, as "Aftershock" borrows more than a little from it. This may be the single most lazily crafted Van Halen song, from any time. That said, it's still clear that they're having fun playing it. There's a looseness the band's playing that sounds like a really great live performance.

"Doin' Time" and "Baluchitherium" are two more straight instrumentals. I'm not sure what this says about the state of the band. Honestly, I think the crushing dullness of the music has sent the musicians in dire need of a way to experiment and enjoy the act of playing, but I understand that's my bias. "Doin' Time" is a drum bit, and its quite funky and interesting. "Baluchitherium" is a great title for an instrumental, but I've got to say, the song itself sounds like the exact kind of thing that causes non-musicians to roll their eyes when they hear the words "guitar solo", which is what the Eddie Van Halen of old had deftly avoided, it doesn't start to feel like anything at all until the end, just as it's about to fade out.

I dig the acoustic guitar and wind chime opening of "Take Me Back (Deja Vu)". It even goes from there into an unusually underproduced and raw vocal from Sammy. Of course, hoping that was the intention of the song as a whole would be hoping too much. It goes into traditional overblown power anthem territory before very long at all, and never really recovers.

"Feelin'" follows with a post-Metallica classical-rock guitar bit. It's skillfully done, of course, but doesn't lead to anything. The only thing to be said for this is that it stands out from the rest of the album. It seems for the first minute and forty-five seconds like they might actually be struggling to achieve some honesty and texture to this, but that is blasted out of the water by a generic Sammy holler that will continue until the song is ready to close out, aside from a particularly nasty sounding solo that seems to burst out of another song altogether, which would be worth complaining about, except that other song sounds like it might have been better than "Feelin'".

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