Saturday, May 02, 2009

Van Halen: Hired guns


I considered a couple of sub-titles for this. "The remainders", which I liked, but blew with a throw away joke about the remainders bin in an earlier post. "And the rest..." sounds funny, but perhaps too outright dismissive.

The one thing this group has in common, however, is that none of it is recorded by a band. It's all by Eddie and Alex Van Halen and whatever singer they've hired at the given moment, even if it is one of the ones who had once been part of Van Halen, the real band.

Best of Van Halen, Volume 1 contains three songs that had not been featured on a Van Halen album previously.

"Humans Being" was recorded with Sammy for the movie Twister, and, I believe actually qualifies as the last song Sammy recorded as a member of the band, rather than as a "hired gun". I'm not certain. This one seems to have a lot of fans, and I can hear the effort here. They seem to have restrained Sammy's vocal bombast and attempted to update their sound. Unfortunately, aside from a cool solo and some nice aggressive energy, I can't much recommend this one.

"Can't Get This Stuff No More" and "Me Wise Magic" were the two new songs with Diamond Dave. I'm going to avoid discussion of whether there was, at this point, any real intention or even hope of regrouping with Dave as the singer and look at the songs. "Can't Get This Stuff No More" doesn't do much for me. It's rather what one expects from these greatest hits add-on songs. An old demo that's been laying around and left off a previous album or two and then dusted off. "Me Wise Magic" is hardly the second coming, but shows an interesting beginning to where a new Dave/Van Halen could have gone. It's not like anything they had done together, it's a got a solid groove and a lot of energy. It sounds both fresh and tied to the classic period... to go back to my overused statement, this would be a solid song on an album of good material, but it's not quite worthy of "hit" status in itself.

But that was not to be.

Now, I'll assume for a moment that someone out there is struggling through this with little to no appreciation for the players involved. I'm not sure why or how they got this far, but let me take this belated time out as a thank you for your patience.

Imagine if Levi Stubbs left the Four Tops. Now imagine they'd replaced him with Clarence Carter. Obviously the first time one heard Clarence Carter, they should think, "But isn't he kind of douchey?" And then perhaps you'd settle down. I mean, he's a douche, but he has chops, maybe it'll work out.

Now, imagine that after years of douchey stuff with Clarence Carter, they record a couple of songs with Levi Stubbs again, and it looks like all might be right with the world. But it's not to be. What happens instead is... They regroup with Pat motherfuckin' Boone singing lead.

This is the world of a classic Van Halen fan in 1997 when it was announced that Extreme vocalist Gary motherfuckin' Cherone would be the new singer for the group.

The result of this new group would be Van Halen III, released in March of 1998 to a tepid reception from critics and the public at large.

So, how is it?

This may be four hours of listening to Van Hagar talking, but damn! Pretty dang good! In fact, it's a cold glass of water in after a long trip through the desert in comparison.

First of all, production-wise, this is probably the best sounding album in Van Halen's career. And Cherone's range is a lot more interesting than the alternating between hollering and howling that Hagar or Van Halen seemed to agree was where he'd remain for all of the Van Halen material he worked on... for the record, his work with Montrose and a solo artist, along with one or two exceptions, such as the "Apolitical Blues" cover, demonstrate that he's capable of more range, but that was almost wholly neglected during his Van Halen years.

The opener is "Neworld", an acoustic instrumental, that's at once hopeful and melancholy. It's a much different kind of instrumental than we've heard from Van Halen in a while, neither a "guitar solo" in disguise nor an experiment in soundscape. It's a compelling start. "Without You" then blasts straight out rather than blending into one another as was the established standard. It really adds some power to "Without You", which is a solid, if slightly forgettable, hard rock song. What begins to stand out here, aside from the controlled vocals and clean production, is that they are returning to a more playful, even quirky, style of arranging and performing here.

"One I Want" is a cool little bit of funky rock. The rhythm and instrumentation here really starts to play around and Cherone does a really fine job with the vocals. One suspects the band may have thought these lyrics are more clever than they are, but certainly not embarrassing, as many of the attempts at cleverness by Sammy had been.



"From Afar" could have been another simple power ballad, but once again, the production saves the day, along with Cherone's snarling delivery and the interesting stuttering guitar riff. "Dirty Water Dog" is a groovy little sex song driven forward on something like a reverse Bo Diddley beat. Cherone does a bit too much of a weird whispery delivery that I can't say I'm excited by. It's a solid number, though.

Now, "Once" is a ballad with only occasional "power" leanings. It sounds a bit like Phil Collins-era Genesis, which I really don't mean as an insult, for whatever that's worth. The only thing I'd complain about is that it does overstay its welcome.

"Fire in the Hole" is straight-rocker with what I can only guess are intentionally nonsensical lyrics. This one may be a bit too Sammy-era for me, but again the production makes it more than listenable, especially the tight little groovy solo.

"Josephina" is led by a simple acoustic guitar. It is apparently about Cherone's mother. As such, it's quite charming. It's not heavy-handed or overly sentimental. It's rather an invitation, or occasionally a plea, to better understand her as a person rather than simply as a mother.

I would have been more inclined to give points to the solid instrumentation and light touch of the opening of "Year to the Day", and ignore heavy-handed "power ballad" chorus, if it didn't overstay its welcome by three-to-five minutes.

"Primary" is a kind of neat, semi-experimental guitar instrumental that plays around with a kind of backward slide-style played against some discordant harmonics. Sweet. It also functions nicely as an into and its own piece, leading into "Ballot or the Bullet", another effectively angry political anthem, without the courage or thought to make any specific political point. But I still think its one of Cherone's best vocals, not to mention the chorus is followed by a really sweet slide-styled part - It's Eddie Van Halen, so I'm never sure if he's doing the thing it sounds like he's doing. - that rides off the chorus and is played extensively with in the solo.

The album closes with "How Many Say I" which is Eddie Van Halen's first, and to date only, lead vocal on a record. It's a piano based song with a Leonard Cohen or Roger Waters feel... In fact, listening to it, I'm surprised no one has used it to substitute for Cohen's "Hallelujah" in one of those sentimental movie (or TV) montages... Its lyrics are less literate than either of those artists, but creates its own kind of honesty and sweetness in that very awkwardness, "Are you ever so silent, when she wanted to talk, or couldn't keep quiet, when she needed a hug come on too strong, when a little's too much..."

I'm kind of fellating this song, and perhaps not very well critically, but frankly, it totally touches all of the places its intended to with me. I'm probably simply not capable of judging this song from a critical perspective. I've loved Eddie Van Halen in a way I can't properly explain, more like a family member than a Rock God, since I was pre-adolescent and I'm the perfect person - perhaps simply a male person - to relate to what he's saying, so it sounds like one heart speaking directly to another to my ear, which is perhaps more than can easily be expressed by attempting to analyze the simple but discordant piano part or the gruff but sensitive vocal.

And on that note, we return to Sammy Hagar, who returned to record three bonus songs for the second Van Halen collection The Best of Both Worlds. I have to say, I wasn't terribly looking forward to this.

So, I'm surprised and not displeased to state, these are three of the five best songs of Van Halen recorded with Sammy Hagar, giving lie to my previous statement that "Finish What You Started" is my favorite Sammy single, as two of these were allegedly released as singles.

Now, the playful musicianship that returned in the Cherone-era seems to have gone back in the closet, but the gloriously clear and natural production sound remains. Most importantly, Sammy seems to have remembered that his vocals with Montrose and a solo artist were much better than his Van Halen vocals and uses them here. Frankly, while For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge might have turned out to have been good enough for my fifteen year old self, I promise that this is what I had dreamed of.

"It's About Time" is a simple rocker, which, as the title suggests, is about time.

"Up for Breakfast" is an ass-kickin' tribute to morning sex, and remains the only Sammy/Van Halen sex song that doesn't make me wonder why anyone would possibly fuck Sammy and his creepy sexual notions. Ok, "She put the cream in my coffee" is terrific. "Put that butter on my biscuit" is just fine. "Honey to my melons" is pushing it. "Cherries on banana" would have embarrassed me with its obviousness when I was twelve. But I'll let it go, since its only goofy and not creepy, and the song really does rock, and does make a nice reference to "Rock Candy" by Montrose.



"Learning to See" is indeed a power ballad, so I can't imagine I'll spend too much time revisiting it, but it does show how much of the pain of the power ballad is the shitty production, since this works. I don't spend any of my time listening to it reaching for a way to make it end. It's also got genuinely grown-up lyrics and not that "16-year-old poetry notebook" feel that all of Sammy's previous power ballads have.

I'm still not sold on Van Hagar, but I'm comforted to realize that my imagining of what the group could sound like wasn't born of pure madness. They could have really rocked. Too bad they didn't realize it until they were, in fact, already over. It's like break-up sex that's better than any of the sex in the actual relationship had ever been.


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