Wednesday, February 8, 2012

RECORD REVIEW: Van Halen "A Different Kind of Truth"

In stores February 7th.
VAN HALEN
A Different Kind of Truth
Interscope Records

At age 50, I'm no longer the same pot-smoking, rock-driven newbie that I was at age 20. Since "1984" I've experienced parenthood, survived a divorce, endured career highs and lows, as well as challenges with the PTA, the IRS and the local PD. I hang out with a completely different group of friends — most of whom also share similar life experiences. I speak differently, dress differently and frequent different establishments. And I don't listen to, or even like much of the same music. But be sure that I've not become that "old boring guy." I simply realize that life is about a lot more than cruisin' on a Friday night while guzzlin' wine coolers and crankin' Metal Shop. In the full spirit of disclosure, I'll admit though that as a teenager, I thrived on the shirtless, spandex-wearing, hard rockin' golden "Diamond" Dave era of Van Halen. And well, 30 years later, I guess that some addictions are still hard to kick.

I've been quite fascinated by the recent brouhaha leading up to the long-awaited and much-hyped release of Van Halen’s latest, A Different Kind of Truth — the band’s first full-length effort with original frontman David Lee Roth since their 1984 record — 28 years ago. What I found particularly amusing about most of the online Dave vs. Sammy / beat up on Wolfie-type dialogue is that many fans seem to be still living in —1984. The overall expectation seems to be that somehow, a band that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year could and should meticulously recreate and recapture the same "magic" in 2012 as in 1978 — which is simply unrealistic, and unfair.

Let’s be honest, kids — the classic Van Halen swagger was lost long before David Lee Roth ever quit. Case in point: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” vs. “Jump.” (C'mon, you know I’m right.) Or how about this — compare the raw, bad-ass factor of the original 1978 “Running with the Devil” video clip with the campy, cheesiness of the “Hot for Teacher” MTV video. Oh sure, Alex’s drum intro is still awesome and Eddie’s riffs remain truly tasty, but face it — by late 1984, the once mighty Van Halen was becoming something of a cartoon band.

With frontman Sammy Hagar leading the charge, Van Halen steered the oh-so-safe “Journey-O-Styx-Wagon” into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And although I personally failed to connect with their more corporate-sounding music during that era, even I had to concede that “Van Hagar” achieved greater success than ever before. But even that was a VERY long time ago.

I always yearned for the return of “Diamond” Dave. Yet when Van Halen did (kinda) reunite briefly with him in 1996, the end result was merely the two (extremely disappointing) studio tracks that were included on a compilation record. Remember “Me Wise Magic?” YIKES! I started seeing the writing on the wall. The message was clear, and it was — “Hey, we’re Van Halen and we’ve run out of material.”

In fact, in the last fourteen years, Van Halen only has been able to muster one full-length album — 1998’s frighteningly unlistenable Van Halen III with former Extreme frontman, Gary Cherone. I won’t say that III is the worst rock record ever, but I do liken my one-time listening experience to that of accidentally copping a peak at the guy’s “stuff” standing at the next urinal in the men’s room — I simply looked quickly (and awkwardly) the other way and tried to pretend that it never happened.

As a diehard fan, even I can admit that David Lee Roth has not been blameless over the years either. Oh sure, his solo career got off with a bang in the late ‘80s (Eat ‘Em and Smile is still one of my all-time favorites), but even his personal “well” also quickly ran dry. Have you heard his 1998 DLR Band or 2003 Diamond Dave records? ‘Nuff said.

So despite their glorious past, to me, the creative bar was actually set pretty low for Van Halen as they once again embarked on a new record. After all, this time they were going at it without the participation of the group’s true unsung hero, bassist Michael Anthony. That’s right, we got Dave back, but three does NOT a reunion make!

As a realistic fan with realistic expectations living in the 2012 real world, I liked the album’s lead single, “Tattoo.” It’s a well-produced, rock solid track that hooked me by the second chorus — and the accompanying black and white video truly captures the band’s old school charisma and long-lost swagger. I’m not saying it's “Somebody Get Me a Doctor II” or even close, but it certainly ain’t “Me Wise Magic” either.

In the old days, Van Halen records typically offered eight or nine tracks and clocked in around thirty-five minutes. Conversely, A Different Kind of Truth contains thirteen tunes and has an approximate running time of fifty minutes. This is where fans could have benefited from the band’s early formula. The first four tracks, “Tattoo,” “She’s the Woman,” “You and Your Blues” and “China Town,” are all classic-sounding slam dunk winners. Had the band and Grammy Award-winning producer John Shanks (Bon Jovi, Chris Isaak, Alanis Morissette) subscribed to the tried and true show biz mantra of “less is more,” and simply offered the first four tracks along with such “B-listers” as “Bullethead,” “Big River,” and the Eat 'Em and Smile-sounding “As Is,” this would have been a snappy and concise record, truly worthy of the Van Halen legend. However, the buzz is killed quickly during what would have been Side Two in the old days, with such mind-numbing clunkers as “Blood and Fire,” “Outta Space,” “Beats Workin’” and “The Trouble with Never.”

And it gets worse. “Stay Frosty” is disconnected, jarring and simply unlistenable. In fact, you actually can hear where Dave’s vocals are patched together — making for what is, without a doubt, the single worst Van Halen track ever — far worse than any abomination offered on III.

As for their well-acknowledged musical prowess, Eddie and Alex both deliver solid caliber performances likely to meet with the approval of dedicated muzos across the board. And Wolfie (or whoever actually cut the bass tracks) lays it down nicely in the pocket.

Although it’s great to hear Dave back making music with “the brothers,” at times his vocals seem undermixed and he often can border on annoying. His “sinister-guy” spoken vocal bit works for “Tattoo” — adding a cool sorta vibe, but it starts to wear thin on “As Is.” And by “Honeybabysweetiedoll” I was really missing Michael Anthony’s signature vocal contribution.

Overall, A Different Kind of Truth is a well-done, well-produced record. It’s “modern-sounding” enough to not seem like a guilty pleasure, while recreating enough of the classic VH magic that fans just might feel as if they’re reuniting with old friends.

In summation, I give this one an ‘88’ Mr. Clark, because it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it!

 -Christopher Long
(February 2012)


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4 comments:

  1. As usual, your dead on. Hands down the best in the music review world. I am very disappointed with most, if not ALL of the tracks.
    ~ Vicki ~

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  2. Thanks Vicki. Great hearing from you again, as always!

    -Chris

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  3. I think the new VH record is an AWESOME sounding record!! It harkens for me back to the old days! Now No one can expect to have VH sounding like VH of 1978 after all they are all in their late 50's or early 60's except for Wolfie!! Speaking of VH of 2012 I think they kicked ass!! Diamond Dave did not try to recreate the sound of his voice in 78 witch is good because he would have failed horribly! They created this VH to suit his voice and I think it came off well! Also as with ALL VH records there were killer tunes and some not so killer tunes BUT with this album given who they are NOW I can put this cd into my deck and listen to it all the way through and be extremely satisfied and rock hard all the way down the highway!!! I give it 2 thumbs up!! Great job to the guys in VH!

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  4. Sounds like another satisfied customer! Thanks for sharing, Ray!

    -Chris

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