Monday, April 27, 2009

Van Halen: The party

At this point in history, I think Van Halen and Van Halen II are both better served if seen as one album. This is basically the core material they developed as the #1 Party Band in L.A., and as a whole they can easily be seen as that party.

The whole thing kicks right into gear with the one-two-three combination of "Runnin' with the Devil", "Eruption" and "You Really Got Me", which nearly run right into each other. This is where everyone's piling in, buying a red plastic cup that entitles them access to the keg. Here you can tell you've come to right party. This will be cooking all night. Frankly, I'm not that fond of the "You Really Got Me" cover. It's far too clean for the material, but in this context I get it. And you can practically hear the band collapse.

At this point the band would get served their second round from the keg, after that collapse, and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" starts with an easy groove as they reinvigorate to the hard rockin' chorus. But it still has the energy of a marathon party band that realizes it needs to pace itself, but also wants to make sure the fashionably late arrivals know they came to right party.

"I'm the One" steps it backs up with the same loose manic energy missing from "You Really Got Me". This doesn't have that hooky quality that gets radio play, but certainly gets everyone at the party rockin', dancing and drinking.

By now, everyone's ready to chill out just bit or find an excuse to slow dance, and here's "Jamie Cryin'". The guitar still rips through, and David Lee Roth's smarmy delivery reminds you that you're at a party and shouldn't take this too seriously. It's all just a groove.

Now, I've always found "Atomic Punk" to be the weak spot here. It's just not that great a record. It's probably a better song than the treatment it gets here, and a band not recording the greatest party album ever recorded, might have nailed this down better. But I'm still not sure it still wouldn't have remained filler. At the party, though, everyone just got a chance to chug another beer and now has an excuse to expend some energy, banging their head and shouting along. Not to mention, the scritchy-scratchy sound Eddie Van Halen gets out of his guitar is pretty cool.

"Feel Your Love Tonight" takes advantage of Michael Anthony's power background vocals to great effect, making it almost impossible not to sing along to. Which at this point in the evening is exactly where everyone should be.

With the album so overplayed and familiar, I've got to say, revisiting the album, I find the groove-blues of "Little Dreamer" to be the unexpected highlight. And, yes, nicely timed for the party for everyone to fill up their drinks once again after the big sing-a-long rocker.

"Ice Cream Man" is one of those songs which splits the listeners down the middle. It's certainly all about Dave and his stylings. It also begins quiet and odd enough to regain the ears of those who might have drifted too far away during the grooviness of "Little Dreamers" and roars in gear with a really amazing solo, and ultimately slides right into the most successfully headbanging track of this party, "On Fire".

We'll assume there's a break in the evening as the band has some more drinks, retunes and such, people almost forget they're there.

Then they slide into action, to the slow, bluesy but searing guitar of "You're No Good", again drawing attention back their way with a certain subtlety. Now, this track usually gets the most fire, but I actually think this is the most effective cover the band ever did. It really feels like Van Halen to me. The guitar, the snotty vocal reading, the screeching background vocal.

Now, "Dance the Night Away" draws in another big drunken sing-a-long. Leading into solid rockin' "Somebody Get Me a Doctor", which in turn slips into another party-time Dave swinger, in "Bottoms Up!"

By the time those are done and all of the inspired chugging along with those, there's a slightly over drunk messiness to "Outta Love Again", which staggers on competently and energetically, but without having a clear idea what it wants to do. "Light Up the Sky" is slower and less energetic, but equally unsure of the direction its trying or where the pace of the evening should be. This definitely still matches the uneven energy of the crowd, which is intermittently energetic and unsure of its ability to make it through.

Things have gotten quiet and the band unleashes the striking but shallow flamenco groove of "Spanish Fly", presumably to mixed reaction, but certainly to the full attentions. Here they try another headbanger in "D.O.A." that they're a little too slow and tired to pull off, leading to a sludgy groove that may well work better than it deserves. The band here is clearly trying to hang onto their own energy here, as much as lift the crowd.

With "Women in Love", they're definitely pushed past their energy level, but they pull off one more attempt at a sing-a-long that's probably a little too slow to pull it off, but you can feel people swaying along with their last drinks in hand.

And then the band pulls together one last shot of energy to play the slow but playful "Beautiful Girls" to the slowly exiting crowd, sending them off to find their way home by the dawn's light with a quiet smile, feeling good about how they spent their Saturday night.

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