Thursday, February 09, 2012

Van Halen: The future part 1

Nearly all of the reviews, from glowing to mixed to indifferent, seem to go to some pains to note that Tattoo, the first single from A Different Kind of Truth is the worst song on the album.

"A Different Kind of Truth" is of course the much anticipated first album of new material by Van Halen with original lead singer David Lee Roth in twenty-eight years.

The trouble, I'm sure, for Interscope Records, who is releasing the album, is that this is not the easiest Van Halen style to sell.

A return to the vibe of their first two albums, Van Halen and Van Halen II, that I dubbed The party, or to their big MTV hit making period of Diver Down and 1984, that I dubbed Mid-life, would have been easy sells.

The period it most resembles is the one with Women and Children First and Fair Warning, that I dubbed Hair of the dog. In fact, it resembles "Fair Warning" a great deal. They would pair up easily as the two heaviest albums in the band's catalog.

I think some would consider nominating one of the Sammy Hagar-era songs from the period I dubbed Monsters, but I think the general dullness of them, despite one potentially interesting Prog Rock-styled song on each album, keeps them from shredding their way to the top.

As noted in A Different Kind of Truth by Steve Kandell, "the tragedy of the subsequent lineup (no need to name names) wasn't that their records were limp (they were) or whether they sold (they did), but that the band was ordinary, and, worse, seemed relieved by that fact, unburdened from the need to be a spectacle, too disengaged to properly navigate the fabled thin line between stupid and clever."

"Fair Warning" was the least commercially successful Van Halen album until the Gary Cherone-fronted Van Halen III. It was, however, also the album that the band was supporting at the time new bassist Wolfgang Van Halen's parents, guitarist Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli met, so it could have sentimental meaning to at least one member of the band.

It is also a fan favorite.

Including for this fan right here.

So, after several spins, I'm unusually confident that this album will hold a comfortable place on the top half, at least, of my Van Halen playlist.

Yeah, it opens with controversial lead-off single "Tattoo" and goes right into "She's the Woman", both of which I awkwardly tried to examine in this post.

Personally, I go back and forth on "Tattoo". I understand the intended appeal as a single and lead-off, as it is catchy on an album on which catchiness is not the main strength. It played as a bunt, though, which especially too bad because the album finds the band swinging for the stands.

"She's the Woman" is stronger, and more aggressive, but still doesn't instill terrific confidence. Neither does "You and Your Blues", the third song.

In fact, let's get it out right away that this album has one weakness and that's being a weak starter. That's three batters, to push the metaphor, and all three are bunts at best. None of them are, for my money, bad, but they would have worked better shuffled in and around the other songs better.

As it happens, "China Town" is in the clean-up position and knocks it out of there. It's a scorcher and easily my favorite on the album. Early word suggests this one is going to be on the live set for the year, and it should burn down the house.

"Blood and Fire" follows and is the song that should have been the first single. The verses have a comfortable classic Van Halen groove and the chorus screams. Not to mention, it's the song every review quotes, where Dave says, "I told you I was coming back. Tell me you missed me. Say it like you mean it." The thing those reviews fail to capture is how that last sentence is snapped with what sounds like genuine annoyance. It's also pretty catchy itself, and I think most people would be happier to find it bouncing around their head than "Tattoo", which admittedly never quite blossoms into anything.

"Bullethead" should be the theme to road rage the world over and is another raging highlight of the album.

Drummer Alex Van Halen kicks "As Is" into gear with a heavy but skewed drumbeat that reminds once again why Van Halen always stood out. This is a quirky, fun and hard rockin' way to open this straight-forward rocker.

"Honeybabysweetiedoll" opens with some weird space age feedback and radio sounds before getting started as Dave vaudeville rap-n-roll jive-rocker. It's not one of my favorites, but its a nice change-up and holds its place nicely, working the album into "The Trouble With Never", which is another classic sounding song and would've been my other alternate choice for lead single.

Since listening, I've read up on some reviews of the album, and "Outta Space" seems to split reviewers the most. It certainly is the song here that sounds the least like classic Van Halen, but I'd say that's a good thing in this case. This is a full-on Heavy Metal song in a way Van Halen has only rarely tried and doing it with Van Halen panache.

"Stay Frosty", the groovy ode to - or mockery of - religion, starts with a bit of acoustic blues that recalls "Ice Cream Man" more than "Could This Be Magic?" before moving into rocking hard. It's hardly a classic in itself, but a solid, entertaining reminder why Dave-led-Van Halen is so much more entertaining than the average hard rock band. So much that even a relatively weak track like this reminds me how much less interesting the music landscape has been without them for the last three decades.

The album closes with the one-two punch of "Big River" and "Beats Workin'". "Big River" has more in common thematically with "Goin' Down" by The Monkees than the Johnny Cash classic. It's a great close of classic Van Halen sound. The album closes so perfectly that most of us have forgotten that it stumbled getting started.

The complaint most reviews seem to get to is that it's too much classic Van Halen and not enough the Van Halen of the future. I think that's wrongheaded all around.

If this turns out to be a one-off reunion then one last album that sounds like it could have been a lost classic is the perfect victory lap...

What's with the excess of sports analogies today, Neil?

... and if this is a new beginning as fans hope (and the title of my post optimistically implies) then finding their footing at what they do best is the best possible place to start from.

There's more than enough hints here where a future Van Halen could go. The driving bass and post-Metal drive and energy of Wolfgang's bass playing and an all around energy that feels like it could fuel a dozen new albums.

For now, I've been waiting for this since I was in Junior High School. I'm happy to enjoy this moment and let the future unfold when its time comes. My first favorite band just delivered a full-on reminder why they took that spot in the first place and I couldn't be more excited.

Here's This Mind-Blowing Collection of Explosive Tunes is a Dream Come True from the Van Halen News Desk. No fuckin' shit!

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