Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No Lie, The New (Old) Van Halen Album Is Surprisingly Good -- Album Review: Van Halen - A Different Kind of Truth

Album Review

Van Halen
A Different Kind of Truth

If the Grammy Awards were to add a category recognizing the "Most Surprisingly Stellar Album," Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth would seem to be a shoo-in next February.

Although I am an avid fan of the music the band originally made with David Lee Roth as its lead singer--I also liked the early "Van Hagar" years--and was delighted by the hits-laden reunion shows with Roth (but sans bassist Michael Anthony) in 2007-08, when I heard that they were releasing a new album I presumed it would be a train wreck, and that was before I saw the album cover.

Van Halen, in any incarnation, has not released great new music since at least 1991, and that's probably being generous by a few years. Roth left the band after 1984--both the year and album of the same name--and even in the heyday was always more of a charismatic cad than a traditionally gifted singer or lyricist. While Eddie Van Halen still had lightning in his fingers on the last tour, I wasn't expecting him, at 57, to rediscover any great inspiration as a composer.

And in fact, the first thing I read about A Different Kind of Truth was that several songs recycled old demos that preceded the first (self-titled) Van Halen album in 1978. This also didn't stir great expectations.

Of course, I still fully intended to get the album upon its release. (It came out last week.)

But I suspected I would hear hokey-jokey, half-sung lyrics over humdrum Van Halen music, without even the lift Michael Anthony's backing vocals used to provide, as he is seemingly still banished from Eddie's good graces and supplanted by Eddie's (and Valerie Bertinelli's) son Wolfgang. For those not up on Van Halen, Eddie's brother, Alex Van Halen, rounds out the foursome on drums, as he always has.

In many regards, my suspicions about A Different Kind of Truth have proven true. There are no particularly catchy guitar riffs or hooks. None of the songs rank with their best hits of old, at least in terms of being radio friendly. "Runnin' With the Devil," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "Dance the Night Away," "And The Cradle Will Rock," "Unchained," "Jump" and "Panama" all outshine anything you'll hear here.

And while DLR proves to be a lech with a gift for creating--and/or borrowing--such witticisms as "mousewife to momshell," "suburban garage-a-tois" and "my karma just ran over your dogma," other than espousing his support for unions--albeit amidst the otherwise banal but relatively catchy first single "Tattoo"--he, not surprisingly, never really says much of substance.

Yet much to my surprise, the album works. Though lacking any tunes that truly rise above the rest, all 13 of the songs rock really hard and Eddie's guitar work is quite simply dazzling. I recently reminded myself how solid the early VH records were from top-to-bottom, and while lacking any ear candy hits, the new work is chock full of strong "album cuts." Most of the songs feature a guitar solo that kind of just shows up, blows your mind and reminds you that this guy pretty much reinvented how the instrument can be played.

In fact, I interpret the album's third cut "You and Your Blues"--with lyrics such as "ain't goin' down to the crossroads"--as Eddie's rebuttal to Page, Beck, Clapton and all the blues-based players he was probably compared to coming up. Either he's chiding them--through Roth--for aping Albert King, Buddy Guy, et al or simply saying that he was otherwise inspired. But there's no denying Eddie Van Halen created a sound all his own, and his playing sounds glorious here.

Not shockingly, it drives much that sparkles about the new album. The lyrics of "China Town" aren't much, but the music--including Alex and Wolfie rather notably--is propulsive. Although Roth isn't bad on this album--he's solid vocally and a good foil for Eddie--many of the songs find me waiting for him to shut up and give way to the Van Halen boys. For example "Stay Frosty" starts as a quirky allusion to "Ice Cream Man," with Roth showcasing the goofy charm that Hagar never could match, but the song really goes into overdrive when he stops singing.

While I don't expect A Different Kind of Truth to stand as my "Album of the Year," it's certainly been a surprise treat in just a week of listening. No, there isn't much here I truly hope to hear in concert, but I also wouldn't dread any 3 or 4 tracks making the setlist when I see Van Halen on April 1 at Allstate Arena (they're also playing the United Center on Feb. 24).

In several ways, VH's return to form reminds me of AC/DC's Black Ice a few years back (even the cover art locomotive evokes AC/DC "Rock and Roll Train" concert imagery). It won't go down as the best album in the storied career of a classic hard rock band, but it's plenty good enough to remind you why they were--and even still are--so great.

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