Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Different Kind of Truth - Van Halen - 2012

I have started and stopped writing this review at least a dozen times. I am as much a Van Halen fan as about any American of my generation (i.e., of those who were actually alive and listening to music during their original incarnation, even if I was in 5th grade when I bought 1984). I've always had all of their records on my shelf but have never adhered to the "David Lee Roth is Forever Superior" mindset and, while I freely admit the band created better singles and killer individual tracks with Roth, I'll always maintain that, as far as albums proper go, they were at their best and most cohesive with Sammy Hagar (and I do sit firmly on the bandwagon in my blanket dismissal of Van Halen III). So - while I was definitely intrigued at the announcement for A Different Kind of Truth I was not overly enthused or even necessarily optimistic. This record has been so hyped and over-covered that, frankly, it's been hard for me, a month after its release, to analyze it unaffected by all of the external noise and pressures to be excited by what was, to me, potentially the latest iteration of Chinese Democracy. I have to admit, though, that I was a little pleased to be able to come home on a Tuesday evening in February and do something I had not done since 1995 - slit the cellophane on a Van Halen album and hear something totally new.

Well, not really totally new. Prior to the release of A Different Kind of Truth word slipped out that the record would contain reworked demos from the mid-70s and, apparently, those make up about half the album's content. That said, not being any kind of Van Halen bootleg fiend, it was all still new to me. Dropping the needle, so to speak, "Tattoo," one of those demos, opens the record and was also the album's first single, out since January. It's not very good. Not as a single and not even as filler. Sounds like a David Lee Roth solo number. Where is the guitar? Buried behind overly loud vocals and an idiotic lyric, that's where. Fortunately, the album only improves from this point on. "She's the Woman" balances a bit better, features some nice, frantic guitar work from Eddie and also, harmony-wise, allays a lot of my hesitation regarding Wolfgang versus Michael Anthony. I'll never argue that Anthony is the world's most accomplished bassist but he did provide great vocal backing (and the dude is such a nice character it's a shame to see him out of the picture here). That said, Wolfgang's vocal contributions - and his unobtrusive bass - are respectable and fit in just fine in this setting. Plus, Eddie as a father has to love having his son on board and it makes sense for a band named "Van Halen" to feature three members with that name.

"China Town" really opens the gates in terms of the old EVH guitar dynamics with the axe sounding like a synth of sorts (and serves as a great reminder that Alex Van Halen is no slack on the drumkit) but it's not until Eddie's solo on "Blood & Fire," probably the best song on A Different Kind of Truth, that I was wowed in the classic Van Halen sense. Lacking the dedicated instrumentals other Roth-era albums featured, this is as close as we get to an "Eruption" moment. "As Is" is yet another classic Eddie showcase comparable to "China Town," starting deep in the mud and progressing to pure fire.

The closing third of A Different Kind of Truth successfully settles into a groove comparable to anything the band released in their heyday. "Outta Space," "Stay Frosty" (a great, fun reboot of sorts of "Ice Cream Man") and "Big River" (complete with another searing solo) offer a solid, uninterrupted ten minutes or so of the great is this 1980? feel you can only hope for with long-delayed reunions such as this. "Beats Workin'," another of the leftover demos, is a respectable closer that gives father and son some nice bass and guitar interplay but is otherwise one of the record's less inspired numbers.

So where does A Different Kind of Truth stand in the Van Halen canon? Admittedly, right up there with the core Roth records. Like all Roth albums, it's unevenly sequenced and full of filler. Half the tracks, even after a month of listening, are utterly forgettable. And Roth still fails to impress me as a vocalist. I'm thrilled he cannot squeal anymore but he still talks more than sings and while the sound of his voice does fit with Van Halen's guitar like an old glove I'll never outright love the guy's contributions on wax. That said, I have to admit that, when the songs work, the band - and particularly Eddie - convey a fire and an utterly alive brand of rock that they haven't displayed since, well, 1984.

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