Saturday, February 18, 2012

'A Different Kind of Truth' sets Van Halen fans free

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s when Eddie Van Halen was constantly rewriting prevailing wisdom on what people presumed possible to achieve on electric guitar, he used to describe his playing approach as falling down the stairs and landing on his feet.

Applying that same analogy to “A Different Kind of Truth,” Van Halen’s first studio album with lead singer David Lee Roth in 28 years, it sounds like Eddie should update the status of his guitar acrobatics to sliding down the banister, dismounting with a front pike somersault and sticking a perfect landing at the bottom.

As far as classic Van Halen fans are concerned, “A Different Kind of Truth” – pound for pound, perhaps the heaviest VH record ever -- constitutes several giant steps in the right direction.

From the opening guitar growl of "Tattoo” to the sustained 30-plus seconds where he slowly wrings every last bit of fuzz and distortion out of his instrument to close “Beats Workin’,” “A Different Kind of Truth” expertly testifies that Eddie has once again taken his guitar playing “Back to the Future.”

There was a reason, after all, that when Marty McFly needed some serious guitar mojo to forcefully frighten his father into critical action during the popular 1985 Michael J. Fox flick that he did so with a cassette tape labeled “Edward Van Halen.” In its original incarnation, Van Halen always did tend to scare parents while unabashedly encouraging the young at heart to become “Unchained” and “Hot For Teacher” or simply to “Dance the Night Away.”

Classic Van Halen was quite literally a glimpse into rock’s future, as nearly every new album contained at least one reinventing-the-instrument guitar moment. Think “Eruption,” “Spanish Fly,” the “Mean Street” intro, “Cathedral,” and “Little Guitars Intro,” not to mention any number of “How-in-the-world-did-he-do-that?” in-song solos that routinely sent guitarists worldwide scurrying back to the woodshed to learn at the frets of Professor Van Halen.

And sometimes the guitarist trying to learn what the younger Van Halen did was the guitar god himself. When I had the opportunity to interview him in 1998 during the course of the Van Halen III tour where the band was playing a lot of Roth-era songs that hadn’t been played in more than 15 years, Eddie told me that relearning a part of 1978’s “I’m the One” had given him fits.

“It sure blew my mind -- I didn’t realize how much my playing has changed over the years,” he said. “You know, it’s an unconscious thing, but there’s a lick in the beginning that I’m going, ‘Man, how in the hell did I do that?’ And it took me a while to learn.”

“A Different Kind of Truth” is literally Van Halen relearning, revisiting and reclaiming its legacy as the greatest American rock band of all time. Much has been written about the band going back into the vaults and revamping up to seven old demos -- many of them from the unreleased recording sessions financed by KISS bassist Gene Simmons prior to the band’s official debut with Warner Brothers.

While that approach may indeed seem at odds with conventional wisdom, just ask yourself this question: When has Van Halen ever done anything by the book? From a listener’s standpoint, I couldn’t care less if the smoking guitar riffs that billow throughout “A Different Kind of Truth” were written last century, last year or last night. The simple truth is there remains nothing else quite like it in music today.

When discussing “A Different Kind of Truth,” there is no getting around the chip off the old block in the room. As Roth declared during the band’s 2007-08 tour, this edition of Van Halen is three parts original, one part inevitable. The latter half of the equation refers to the addition of Eddie’s son, Wolfgang (21 next month), on bass, following the subtraction of Michael Anthony.

Clearly, Anthony, who had remained a member of the band through all three of its previous lineups, was popular and extremely fan-friendly. His onstage exuberance and background vocal abilities are missed. However, it’s quite likely that were it not for Wolfgang, there would have been no reunion with Roth, no new tours and no new music. The potential to play with his son was likely the main impetus that led Eddie back to rehab, back to the stage and, eventually, back into the studio for the new recording sessions after years of band inactivity – sans a somewhat disastrous reunion tour with second-singer Sammy Hagar in 2004. In that respect, it’s hard to begrudge father and son this unprecedented opportunity.

Yeah, but can he play? The proof is in the creme brulee. Wolfgang is not only locked in step with his uncle, drummer Alex Van Halen, but he adds his own little flourishes throughout the entire record and holds up the bottom end with aplomb. The kid is more than all right. And the rhythm section on this entire record is off-the-rails powerful.

The typical sign of a great album from an established band is if there are three or four tracks that you would want to see in concert. Let’s just say I would be ecstatic if the band played the entire record from top to bottom’s up. Track by track, and there are a blazing baker’s dozen of them, this album ranks right up with the band’s best work.

Here’s my song-by-song breakdown:

“Tattoo” -- The diehard Van Halen camp has not been so split over the merits of a lead single since the release of “Jump.” Half the fanbase seems to love it, while the other half loathes it. I fall into the former group. While it did initially raise some red flags with those who hoped the band would return to its hard rock roots, those fears would prove to be completely unfounded. When the initial reviews started filtering out in advance of the album’s release, I scoffed when many claimed “Tattoo” was the worst song on the record. I now hear their point. I still love the song, with Dave’s lyrical imagery and Eddie’s guitar solo making it already better than most anything else on the radio today. I also like the subtle keyboard in the verse -- the only spot on the album where any keys are apparent — and the “Down in Flames/You’re No Good” volume swell ending.

Favorite lyric: “Swap meet Sally, tramp stamp tat, mousewife to momshell in the time it took to get that new tattoo.”

She’s the Woman” -- While “Tattoo” hints of “Down in Flames,” this is the first track that draws heavily from an earlier demo. Same title and music, completely different lyrics. While on the subject of lyrics, I’ve got to give it up to Roth here. It’s incredible having his gift of gab and wink-and-a-nod sense of humor back in play. This song is a perfect example. The last Hagar-attempted lusty love song with the band was the wholly unappetizing “Up For Breakfast,” and its line upon line of third-grade fruit metaphors (“Cherries on bananas ... honeydew my melon”? Seriously? Gag me with a prune!) But with Dave we get lines like “suburban garage a trois” and “I want to be your knight in shining pickup truck.” Upbeat and fast-paced, this track features a funky feel and Eddie’s trademark between-vocal guitar fills and squeals. This song also answers all questions about Wolfgang’s bass abilities.

Favorite lyric: “The song ain’t dirty it’s really just the way we sing it.” (Reminds me of the famous Jessica Rabbit line from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”)

“You and Your Blues” -- At this point in time, I can’t get enough of this song. A syncopated Eddie riff sets the mood and carries the song for the first 15 seconds before Alex and Wolfgang join in mid-first verse. I’m probably not recognizing them all, but Dave name checks at least nine different blues songs in the lyrics. This is Van Halen-style blues, in that you don’t get pulled to a darker, somber place while commiserating with the lyrical point of view. Instead, the upbeat chorus lifts your spirits even while it hammers home the suffering viewpoint. The background vocals also stand out -- checking off another question lingering from Anthony’s departure. I could see this as a potential single.

Favorite lyric: “Ain’t goin’ down to no crossroads, ain’t gonna dust no broom, no evil woman’s got a hold on me, ain’t goin’ to heaven anytime soon.”

“China Town” -- This is as heavy a song as Van Halen has ever recorded. It’s 3 minutes and 12 seconds of pure adrenaline. If you could somehow bottle this, you could put Red Bull and Rockstar out of business. Alex’s drumming throughout this breakneck pace is incredible. Looking for your mind-blowing guitar moment of this album? Check out the last 12 seconds of the song -- as Eddie unleashes a free-falling torrent of notes that just make you shake your head and say, “Wow!” I would love to see the band open its new tour -- which as I write this opens tonight in Louisville -- with this song. Besides, how can you not love a song that begins with the line, “Headless body in a topless bar”?

Favorite lyric: “Heroes aren’t born they’re cornered, and this corner is where we write the story.”

“Blood and Fire” -- Longtime Van Halen fans recognize the main music motif in this song as “Ripley,” an instrumental written by Eddie when he scored the soundtrack to “The Wild Life,” a 1984 movie by Cameron Crowe. Fans have always wondered what it could turn into with lyrics and the full band treatment. Now they know. Lyrically, with its talk of “forgotten empires” and “lost victories long past,” it seems to be an autobiographical nod to the band’s history. Dave even inserts his trademark concert exclamation of “Look at all of the people here tonight!” Speaking of trademarks, this marks the first of several standard spoken mid-song slowdowns (think “Everybody Wants Some!,” “Unchained” and “Panama”) with Dave breaking down the third wall and talking directly to the listener. “Told ya I was coming back. Say you missed me. Say it like you mean it.” The transition from spoken word to over-the-top guitar solo still gives me goosebumps, even after a couple dozen listens. I kind of feel like rating Eddie’s guitar solos is a bit like judging Michael Jordan’s dunks in that even his average takes are on such a higher plane than the competition it’s almost unfair. It’s mostly futile to compare Eddie to others, he’s best compared only to himself. With that in mind, this solo stands up to some of his best work.

Favorite lyric: “Look at all of the people here tonight.” (This line never ceases to put a smile on my face.)

“Bullethead” – So far, I have a real love/like relationship with this song. When I’m scanning the songs on the disc, it’s never one of my first choices to listen to. Yet, when it does come on, invariably I enjoy it. With its blast-from-the-gates guitar squeal, this is another blistering rocker. Musically, it dates back to the Simmons demo, but with new lyrics, albeit the same title. Personally, I place it toward the bottom of this album, but I know many others who rate it near the top. This album tends to invite that very rare phenomenon where opinions are across the board on what the best songs are. I’ve read hundreds of comments, from professional reviews to message boards, listing the best and worst songs on the album, and someone’s treasure is another’s throwaway track. To me, that’s actually the sign of a very good album.

Favorite lyric: “How many roads must a man walk down, before he admits he’s lost?”

 “As Is” -- This song is just a monster! I remember Eddie saying once that before there were lyrics to “Me Wise Magic” he referred to the song as “The Three Faces of Shamus” because of its trio of distinct musical sections. In that case, this song might as well be called “The Five Faces of Shamus” for its handful of abrupt turns and changes of pace. Alex kicks things off with an 18-second drum intro before Eddie and Wolfgang join in, and just when you’re settling into what you expect to be the main groove it all turns upside down with what turns out to really be the song’s main riff. Discerning fans will recognize a striking similarity in the predominant riff to the explosion-of-jam moment he played during his walk-on appearance of “Two and a Half Men” in 2009. (On the show, that was given the tongue-in-cheek title of “Two Burritos and a Root Beer Float.”) Everybody is just firing on all cylinders throughout the song before eventually settling into an ethereal rideout section that eerily endures for more than a minute. Great, great song.

Favorite lyric: “It's not who you squeeze, but who returns once again to squeeze you no doubt, love ’em all I says, let Cupid sort ’em out.”

“Honeybabysweetiedoll” -- There is so much going on musically in this song that I’m still finding amazing things in it with each new playback. It opens up with 30 seconds of guitar wankery and weird sound effects. The main segment is a roiling undertow of a riff that pulls you in and relentlessly pummels you before finally releasing you exhausted at song’s end. Dave handles most of this song in a lower register, half singing, half speaking his way through. The final minute and a half is all instrumental and features a furious solo by Eddie and some guitar playing that has a surprising Mideastern flair.

Favorite lyric: “Stone soul sistah soccer mom, muchacha-miga, cherry bomb.”

“The Trouble With Never” -- Another top flight song that could be a potential single. There’s much to like about this song, from its main verse and chorus to the couple “Alice in Wonderland” references and some nice backing vocals. But my favorite section of the song is the middle, which features a more-than-a-minute-and-a-half departure from the proceedings. It kicks off with a killer, wah-induced guitar solo lasting 45 seconds before easing into another classic Dave-speak breakdown that sets up a thundering reverie before returning to the original chorus. Amazing!

Favorite lyric: “Let’s un-plan the moment, dance the night away, selective amnesia is only a heartbeat away.”

“Outta Space” -- The backstretch of this album is just unbelievable. There is no let-up and no filler. It’s undoubtedly buoyed because three of the final four songs are revamped from a trio of all-time demo favorites -- their explosive main riffs having lost none of their power in the intervening 35-plus years, and, in fact, even gaining more of an edge in the hands of a battle-tested and –scarred Eddie.This song is based on “Let’s Get Rockin’ ” and is flat-out stellar as Dave updates it with his take on overpopulation and political correctness.

Favorite lyric: “Need no polar bear to scare me, no Eskimo to share with me his fate, woo, we outta space. No blog-o-sphere to sell me, no dolphin needs to tell me, no starving kid to make the case.”

“Stay Frosty” -- If “Stay Frosty” weren’t poised to become the catchphrase of 2012 -- Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters has already chanted it like a mantra -- then you could call this “Son of Ice Cream Man.” Completely different song, of course, but the formula is the same -- the only thing missing is Dave dedicating one to the ladies and a hearty “All right, boys!” before the song ramps up from acoustic to power-based boogie blues. Dave’s storytelling talents are in fine form here, transporting the listener on a journey to various religious leaders who offer sage advice along the lines of: “Don’t want them to get your goat, don’t show ’em where it’s hid” and “You want to be a monk, you’ve got to cook a lot of rice.” There are not one, but two high-octane guitar solos, and Alex and Wolfgang keep up the oft-frenetic pace.

Favorite lyric: “Stay Frosty, and there's nothing you can’t handle, far and wide, far as you ramble, trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.”

“Big River” -- Reworked from a fan-favorite demo titled “Big Trouble,” this is another amazing song. It’s almost redundant at this point: The musicianship on here is first-rate. Great catchy tune, with a pair of mind-numbing guitar solos.

Favorite lyric: “Listen to a sea shell, you can hear the sea, listen to a beer glass, that river belongs to me.”

“Beats Workin’ ” -- Top to bottom, this is one of my favorite songs on the album -- a potential party rock anthem for the new generation. Opening with a 45-second setup, the song receives a complete jolt when the extremely catchy main riff (originally from the demo “Put Out the Lights”) explodes onto the scene. This song is vintage Van Halen. Great vocals, blazing guitar with three solos, great backing vocals, heart-thumping rhythms. Not only does this make a great closing number, especially with its exaggerated fadeout, it would also make a fantastic single.

Favorite lyric: “One empty floor, stands between the stage, and the welfare door, heads or tails, of the same bread, coin of the realm, just like the man said.”

In summation: Forget all the infamous backbiting, sniping and animosity between various members throughout the decades. Forgive the years and years of wasted time and lost opportunities. Throw the “No news is good news” slogan to the wind.

Trust your ears. This is the exactly the type of “Truth” that can set long-suffering Van Halen fans free.

After a couple dozen listens, my fur-rising factor rates “A Different Kind of Truth” on a nearly equal hallowed plane as “Van Halen I” and “Fair Warning” -- my two personal favorites based on 35 years of utmost fascination with this little old band from Pasadena.

Ultimately, only time will tell if it stands the test of ...

(Editor’s note: The breakdown segment in “Mean Street” just struck this poor boy down ... )

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