How to Fix Van Halen

VanHalen_OnKimmel_
Perhaps you saw Van Halen on your TV recently gracing the stage at Jimmy Kimmel Live and the Ellen Show, fronted by a gum-chomping, ink-covered old singer and just shook your head. More likely, you clicked a link to watch one of the appearances online after the fact and maybe X’d out of it in disappointment at how The Mighty Van Halen has fallen.

What’s wrong with Van Halen in 2015? Well, first off, they seem to not have a promotional/PR team (or social media presence). In fact, a random slip-up by a Canadian DJ, followed by tireless “internet research” by members of the VHLinks message board, followed by “confirmation” from Billboard and Rolling Stone (citing sources that sited “internet chatter”) is how word of their upcoming live album first leaked (confirmed by the band a month later with those TV appearances).

That brings us to what else is wrong with Van Halen in 2015: they are just now finally releasing their first live album with iconic front man David Lee Roth and it’s a 2013 show (with no BluRay/DVD companion). Still no classic shows from the vaults.

So the problem with Van Halen isn’t just that they are old, although they are that. But old age has treated the Bruce Springsteens and Paul McCartneys of the world just fine. Van Halen has fallen down the next step: they’ve made themselves irrelevant. Since their heyday(s) with both Roth and his successor Sammy Hagar, they’ve brought both back for reunion tours of varying success and mostly wallowed in inactivity, save for the 2012 studio album they made with Roth (with Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony on bass).

But while other rock bands (from Van Halen contemporaries like Rush to disciples like Pearl Jam) have almost all released live DVDs from tours old and new, along with remasters with bonus tracks, Van Halen has been curiously silent and their remasters offer no previously unreleased material. Time to change that. Time to restore the greatest American rock band back atop the throne of stardom and glory. Time to fix Van Halen.  Continue reading →

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On Ice Buckets and Challenges

Thanks to my brother Mark for nominating me for the #ALS #IceBucketChallenge. I’m not making a video, but will be sure to join the masses who have donated. The nature of charity is that you don’t advertise how much you give (but my donation will be in the 10’s of dollars, I can assure you).

Of course, NOT doing an ice bucket video makes me a bit of party pooper in 2014, and that’s okay. If you want to see ice bucket videos, I’m pretty sure you will find some out there. Dave Grohl dressed up as Carrie. Sammy Hagar telling Eddie and Alex Van Halen to go jump in a lake. Eminem on stage during a concert. I’m pretty sure our friend who called out my wife had someone dump pool water over her head while they were standing in the pool. I thought that was just called “Summer.”

The spirit of this ALS viral fundraising phenomenon, the big picture as I see it, is to bring a “less popular” disease to the forefront. Of course (and unfortunately) we have more than enough diseases and famine in the world that we don’t lack options for our charity dollar.

The ice bucket challenge has brought Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)—also referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” and Motor Neurone Disease (MND)—out of the shadows 75 years after Gehrig’s last at-bat for the Yankees. This craze has inspired people all over the world to pour in record numbers of donations (see what I did there?).

The death of Robin Williams was my bucket of ice.

Robin Williams died of perhaps the darkest and most unknowable disease there is: Depression. We don’t know what else was going within him to cause his suicide, and reports that he was also beginning a battle with Parkinson’s only leave us with more questions.

I don’t know what it’s like to experience true Depression. Yes, I’ve been sad, but I’ve always had perspective, and a positive outlook on life and I’m always looking to make a joke. Part of the reason for this happiness is that I grew up watching Robin Williams. From the slapstick insanity of Mork and the furious stand-up routines (that also stood at the forefront of the pop-culture/charity movements of the 1980s with Comic Relief) to the dramatic roles that reminded us “You’re not perfect, sport,” and “Seize the day,” Robin Williams improved our mental state while he either numbed his own, or simply held on tight as it deteriorated.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on something that’s supposed to be fun (sorry). All of this is just my long-winded way of avoiding a big bucket of ice water getting dumped on my head. But just as this viral trend has flooded ALS charities (oops, I did it again) with much-needed support, we need to continue to shine our lights, and cameras, and actions, into the shadows of mental illness and addiction.

As always with this stuff, like with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death… when it’s Cancer or other diseases, there’s usually this tremendous support and compassion… but with Depression, especially when mixed with a history of any type of substance abuse, there’s a stigma, there’s this idea that, “Well, fuck him, he shouldn’t have been such a waste-oid. He did this to himself.” Most substance abuse may start off as choosing to party, choosing to get fucked up, but it too is a disease, no matter if the chicken or the egg is first. Some people turn to substance abuse as a result of Depression. Obviously Depression is a separate animal from Addiction… but they are often treated, or mistreated, similarly.

So I’ll be matching my ALS donation and finding some mental health charities to support as well. And heck, I’m also a big fan of “Music in Schools” charities too! But that’s for another post.

For now, I can only imagine what Robin Williams could have done with a bucket of ice, a camera, and a challenge.

Fantasy Rock Band

Just stare at that chart in all its trivial rock’n’roll glory.

As arbitrary as the chosen musicians and their corresponding “salaries” might be, and countless arguments can be made about who’s missing and who’s under/overpriced, I’m still fascinated by this! [We could make 5 or 10 different salary charts based on this same concept, but as you can see, @MattNorlander made this one, so credit to him and send him any of your complaints.]

A few things are keeping me from making a final decision on a line up. Should I just try to make the salary work under the $25 cap, or also consider how the styles/playing fits together? Just like in sports, perhaps more so, chemistry can be as important as talent. But, this is fantasy. I think it’s safe to assume we are getting each of these guys at their peak, and not current (and in some cases, dead) state. Is it a requirement of this pointless fictional game to spend the full $25? What about getting credit/points for spending less?

My day is shot.

One inherent flaw is the idea of strictly defining the guitarists as either “Lead” or “Rhythm” guitarists. Sure, guys like Keith Richards and Neil Young are more known for riffage than shredding, but that’s not all they can do. Jimmy Page is listed as Rhythm but I’m pretty sure he’s capable of playing Lead. On the flipside, the top Lead Guitarist is Jimi Hendrix, but he’s more than capable of playing a Rhythm role as well. Same for George Harrison (listed as the cheapest “Lead” option, perhaps because we often think of him as a peaceful strum-along type).

So that leads (LEADS, see what I did there?) to more questions: should I pick 2 very versatile guitarists so they each fill both rhythm and lead duties? Or go for a more defined rhythm-lead combo? We’ll play with some lineup options later, but thought it should be noted that the guitar slots are tougher to define than Drums or Bass.

“Frontman” seems easily defined, but there’s some basic flaws with that slot too. Are women eligible? (In fact, there are no women anywhere on this chart, so that’s another general complaint to be launched elsewhere on behalf of Janis Joplin, Kim Gordon, Chrissie Hynde, and Ann & Nancy Wilson.) And are we judging/choosing our Frontman on vocal abilities alone or does stage presence play into it? Again, chemistry comes into play, how will a given Frontman’s voice sound with a given supergroup of musicians? If you choose some hard-rockin metal-leaning musicians, then Axl Rose might be a better choice than, say, Bono or Mick Jagger. But I’d trust Bono and Jagger to actually show up to the gigs and perform on time, and in general I don’t think I’d want Axl Rose in any band I was putting together.

Continue reading →

Best Albums of 2012: Not Just a List!

I knew when the Fall new-album schedule had Bob Dylan, the Avett Brothers, and Patterson Hood releases on the same Tuesday morning that it would be the best September 11th ever.

Sure enough, none of them disappointed.  Bob Dylan returned with Tempest, a gritty and at times scathing stew of blues and folk serving as an amazing reminder of the late-career consistency he’s shown on record in the new century. Great Bob Dylan records are the reason people like me make lists like this every year.

Whether willingly or unconsciously, the Avett Brothers and Patterson Hood (lead driver and navigator of the Drive-By Truckers) are indeed disciples, descendants, and torchbearers of the folk-rock tradition personified and perfected by Dylan. And neither act seems to cower from the challenge, even if they’d scoff at my assertion that they belong in the same sentence as the legendary Dylan.

Seth and Scott Avett are blessed with much sweeter voices of course; and the songs (from the Beatlesque harmonies and tearjerkers to the more rockin’ numbers) on The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter are perfect showcases for their natural talent.

phood-hlritdPatterson Hood’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance might actually be his best album to date. Fronting the Drive-By Truckers, Hood had already built a career as a gifted storyteller and master painter of pictures, and now the solo Heat Lightning flashes it right in our faces. There’s one scene where he shows up just after midnight at a liquor store in the next county cuz it’s Monday now and the liquor laws allow them to start selling again. It’s sad and lonely, but then Hood’s protagonist sees some “friends.” Even sadder, there’s already a line of “zombies” there when they flip the sign to open. This all transpires within the first verse of the first song.

From that first track on, it’s apparent that this will be a strange and telling ride, from that bleak scene at the liquor store in “12:01” all the way to where it “winds around dead-man’s curve where the lady from the Sunbeam bread wrapper was killed in that head-on” in “Untold Pretties.” Easily one of my Top 3 Albums of the year.

The other two were Chuck Prophet’s Temple Beautiful, reviewed here, and Jack White’s Blunderbuss (which I wrote about over the summer in this Heavy Rotation column). Other albums that I blurbed about in the first half of the year that make this Best Albums of 2012 list are:

Dr.John – Locked Down
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
KRS-One – The BDP Album
DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Father John Misty – Fear Fun

soundgarden king animal artOne of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Soundgarden’s King Animal. They were always a good band, and made a few great records back in the day. But after such a long layoff, I was only expecting a shell of a bland Soundgarden-by-numbers album. I was wrong, this album really is great. The first two tracks might fit that bill of as-expected uninspiring rockers, but from track 3 through the end King Animal sits right up there with the bands’ finest moments from their Badmotorfinger-Superunknown peak.

At the end of the year, December saw the release of an album called Carry On, by a guy named Willy Mason. Never heard of him, but started noticing some good reviews so I checked it out. Really glad I did, as this album is both instantly likable and a slow-burning grower. Terrific songwriting meets production that ranges from trippy and atmospheric to stripped down and raw. Think Beck meets Daniel Lanois. Or just forget my half-assed attempts at catchy descriptions and just go buy Willy Mason’s Carry On right now. It’s like a secret gem. An out-of-the-blue underdog landing on my list of Best Albums of 2012.

The Rest Of The Best:

Jimmy Cliff  Rebirthjimmy cliff rebirth
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Jason Isbell – Live in Alabama
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (reviewed here)
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-1975
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Bill Fay  Life Is People
Band of Horses Mirage Rock

Rush – Clockwork Angels. That’s right, I’m risking what little credibility I might have by putting the polarizing RUSH on this list. Fact is, or my opinion is, this new Rush album rocks. There’s no synthesizers or cheesy electric drums. It’s not just guitar-driven, but the guitars actually sound like guitars. I realize most people hate the sound of Geddy Lee’s voice, and I’ll admit I can only take it in small doses. But this is a solid showing by the aging-but-legendary trio from Canada. I know it’s not cool to admit liking Rush, that’s why I hid this part all the way at the end.

A Music Confession

A few months ago Bums Logic’s own Todd Levinson Frank converted ownership of a wide collection of albums from various recording artists to me. My first confession: despite the fact that TLF had passed the music onto me months ago, it was only recently that I loaded the music on my iPod. While most people are quick to add new music to their libraries, for some reason it took me a few months to get around to it. On a side note, this is something that TLF knows about me all too well, as he once suggested a list of people to follow on twitter that I still have yet to ‘follow’ but I digress.

A waste of space.

I added this image in the hopes that you would read it and thus taking up at least five seconds of your time. Thanks for reading.

The list of artists in the collection that Todd provided is rather expansive and that stands as one of the reasons that I delayed the full addition to my music library. My point: if I were to add all of them at once, it is unlikely that any of the artists would be given the undivided attention that they deserve. Bands pour so much time and effort into their recordings and giving their work only a simple cursory listen is nearly equal to a slap in the face. Think about it. Suppose you spent time on a project of any particular discipline wouldn’t you be a bit put off if everyone simply provided it a perfunctory amount of their attention? I know I would.

I can imagine that many of you are thinking, ‘Wow, that is some confession. I hope you feel better after alleviating such a huge burden.’ Well as I stated earlier, that was my first confession.  You see there is more.

Continue reading →

Heavy Rotation

I’m not gonna call this my Top 10 Albums of 2012 (So Far), because if there’s anything geekier than posting annual Best Albums of the Year lists, it’s doing them in July for the first half of the year. So instead just consider this a Top 10 Best Albums I recommend you add to your rotation for the rest of the summer. And, in one way or another, all of these albums are heavy.

Jonathan Wilson Gentle Spirit cover art by Mike Sportes.

Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Spirit
Okay right off the bat I have to cheat a little bit: this is the only non-2012 album on this list. This one was actually released in August of 2011, with some recordings dating another year or two older. But I’m using the “it’s new to me this year” rule, and it’s one of my favorite recent album discoveries. Phenomenal guitar tone with a voice smooth as silk. Born at the end of 1974, it’s like he was infused with the best of what Neil Young and Jerry Garcia had been offering around that same time. And “Natural Rhapsody” even ventures near Pink Floyd territory. Wilson, who just wrapped up an opening slot for Tom Petty’s European tour, also produced the Father John Misty Fear Fun album listed below, as well as both acclaimed albums by the band Dawes.

DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Premo drops a straight banger here, this time partnered with hard rhymer Bumpy Knuckles, aka Freddie Foxxx. It turns out to be a winning combo, roaring straight out of the hip-hop heyday of the 90’s: classic-sounding Gang Starr beats with Premier’s signature chorus cuts working along side Freddie’s aggressive but underrated wordplay.

Dr. John – Locked Down
Supreme grooves by the legendary master. These jams are fun for all ages. Whenever someone like Dr. John (as if there’s anyone else like him) drops an eclectic gem like this, writers like myself run to their blogs to use the word gumbo. It’s not that we’re lazy and predictable, it’s just that it’s so damn tasty.

Jack White – Blunderbuss
I’m gonna try not to wear my Jack White man-crush on my sleeve, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. If you’d heard that Jack’s first official solo album in his own name was a successful blend of the sounds he cultivated with the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, then you heard right. It’s both nuanced and immediately likeable, and while most diehards would rank his White Stripes albums in the top few slots of his resume (in some order), dare I already claim Blunderbuss is Jack White’s best album ever, and let’s argue about where to rank the rest.

Killer Mike – RAP Music
Killer Mike mixes Chuck D’s booming clarity on the mic with a voice quality more akin to something between Ice Cube and Big Boi. This one jumps out of your speakers like an instant classic. Produced entirely by El-P, this is a brilliant collaboration that spawned something I would call futuristic/old-school hip-hop. El-P’s beats aren’t too frantic or busy and he somehow manages to make Rick Rubin-style 808 beats sound more like tomorrow than yesterday.

Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
I reviewed this one when it came out, but just wanted to confirm it was not a flash in the pan. Still love this album.

Father John Misty Fear Fun cover art by Dimitri Drjunchin.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman follows his stint drumming/singing on the Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues with this oddly interesting piece of art. I don’t know if “Misty” refers to mist and fog or if it’s shorthand for mysterious, but from the mellow to the catchy, Father John paints a beautiful-sounding picture.

KRS-One – The BDP Album
With someone as prolific as KRS, who inexplicably works just outside the spotlight, it could be easy to miss this ultimate return to form. The BDP Album finds KRS picking back up on the Boogie Down Productions vibe in more than just name only. His brother DJ Kenny Parker provides the back drop and Kris does his usual wrecking of the mics.

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
Another one I’ve already reviewed here that I’m still rocking several times a week. I know, I have a problem. But six months later, I’m still reveling in the crunching sounds of a happy, healthy, and sober Eddie Van Halen in top musical form, the surprising pulse of his son Wolfgang on bass, and the not-surprising thunder of drums from Wolfie’s uncle Al.

Dr. Dog – Be the Void
Sometimes I think the albums and bands I love the most “don’t sound like anything else” and have some unique, indescribable sound and quality. But that makes them the most difficult to write about, hence “indescribable.” The best I can come up with for Dr. Dog is that they are like a modern-day psych-folk revival of The Band; recommended if you like Felice Brothers.

Heavy Lifting: Handling Van Halen’s New Truth

David Lee Roth has often quipped that Van Halen, and liking Van Halen, was never “cool.” Then again, Dave would probably be the first one to tell you that most of what he spouts is bullshit anyway.

I am firmly in the camp that finds The Mighty Van Halen to be very fucking cool. Not sure what that makes me, other than an impressionable young rock music fan seeing them live in 1982, when I was 12 and they were peaking and about to jump to the top of the pop stratosphere a couple years later. I was obviously doomed and blessed to be locked in as Van Halen fan for life.

There’s probably a whole nation of VH fans who’ve been chased into the wilderness once the Van Hagar experience ran it’s course after two decent albums (and two weak ones) and Gary “the guy from Extreme” Cherone fronted a limping shell of the band to make the tree-fell-in-the-woods album III. For about a decade, most of us forgot about the reclusive Eddie Van Halen, former guitar virtuoso battling cancer, alcoholism, and his bands’ failed half-assed greatest hits re-packages and reunion tours with Sammy (in 2004) and Dave (2007-08, a more successful outing).

Amazingly, Eddie beat both cancer and alcoholism. And while Diamond Dave was back in the fold, former bassist Michael Anthony had been replaced by Van Halen’s son Wolfgang. Of course some die-hard fans still cling to this notion that it’s “not the real original Van Halen without Michael Anthony and his signature high harmonies,” and that is true, no disrespect to Michael Anthony, but most of these people are just saying that so you know that they are big Van Halen fans who know the name of the fourth guy and don’t call him Mark Anthony. Fact is, Wolfie Van Halen rocks the bass just fine (and being the bassist for Van Halen is not exactly the Rocket Science assignment among legendary rock bands).

So given that backdrop, my excitement at the news of a new studio album was tempered with understandably low expectations. I was glad they were coming back, but really figured the album would likely suck. I wish I could just tell noted Van Halen fan and author/columnist Chuck Klosterman to stop worrying and love the new album, but I do get what he means when he writes “Going into A Different Kind of Truth, I unconsciously suspected my takeaway would be, This is a bad album, but I love it nonetheless. My actual sentiment is closer to, This is a good album, but I just don’t like it, no matter how much I try.”

My version of the backhanded compliment goes more like this: “I am so shocked that this album isn’t horrible.” But that initial reaction was quickly replaced, as the album legitimately rocks. Hard. One of those rare instances where I love it on first listen and it grows on me and gets better.  Oddly enough the only dud is track one, the lead single “Tattoo,” a bland and forgettable mid-tempo song that feels out of place among the heavy jams that fill the rest of the album.

There are double-time metal workouts like “China Town,” “Outta Space,” and “Bullethead.” Other songs like “Blood and Fire” and “Beats Workin” have that signature “bounce” of their catchiest material from Diver Down, but most of it is as heavy as Fair Warning. “You and Your Blues” is the only one that almost sounds like it could fit in on one of those first two (good) albums they made with Sammy Hagar. But it all sounds like classic Van Halen. Much has been written that this album “isn’t new” or that it’s all just old demos. Yes, about 5-6 songs came from old riffs from their 70’s demos. But Eddie and the guys have been mining that stuff for years. Other tracks from those sessions popped up on Fair Warning and even as late as 1984.

While “Stay Frosty” might have flopped for being such an obvious sequel of sorts to “Ice Cream Man” from the first album, it’s saved by what always saves Van Halen: once it again it fucking rocks! (There’s no Magic Music Blogger words to reach for here, so I’m just letting my early teenage Van-Halen-loving self write this one.)

The album lacks a crazy signature Alex moment on drums, but he is solid and thunderous throughout, with plenty of groove. “As Is” and “Honeybabysweetiedoll” are badass funky songs that anchor the middle at tracks 7 and 8. At one point you hear a dog bark in the background, and that’s always cool.

Not that different.

I’m not really loving the awkward title A Different Kind of Truth, or that Commodores-biting train picture on the cover. (Really guys? One of the greatest logos in rock history to work with and you came up with that?) They should have gone with Blood and Fire, with the classice VH logo both in flames and dripping in blood. (Told you a 14-year-old was writing this).

As for the fire, Eddie sounds as hot, fresh and fluid as ever. The infamous “tone,” the crunchy riffs (whether culled from old demos or new), the furious solos… as you’ve likely read elsewhere, Eddie Van Halen really is back. As for the blood, apparently much of the credit for Eddie’s inspiration and motivation goes to his desire to play with Wolfgang. His mom, actress Valerie Bertinelli, recently told a radio station that there probably wouldn’t be a tour or new album if not for Eddie being able to do this with his son. Pretty cool.

Again, for a guy who’s famously had a third of his tongue remove because of mouth cancer, who’s had a hip replacement, has won a longtime battle to get sober…. and now he’s gonna work with his historic nemesis David Lee Roth on a new album?

Blood and Fire: Wolfgang Van Halen rocking out with dad and Uncle Alex.

Before you say it’s just a money grab, consider this: apparently the band said “No” to David Letterman, Howard Stern, the cover of Rolling Stone, and probably a host of other media offers. Why? In 2012, you’d think an aging reunited band would kill for that type of coverage and exposure. They also took what fans and critics have universally panned as the worst song, “Tattoo,” and made that the advanced single. I don’t understand any of this approach, especially considering how good the album is…

The only drawback to mention, is Mr. Diamond Dave himself. Lyrics never mattered too much in this band, and most of his lines are worthy of boardwalk-shirt or bumper-sticker philosophy. While he generally sounds great (he doesn’t push anything too far or high on the record), there’s this…. creepiness about him that has always been there under his circus act, but now he’s pushing 60. And it seems like 10 out of the 13 songs have some cool musical breakdown with weird Uncle Dave making low-voiced whispered advances on your sister. I know he’s the master of the breakdown, it’s just a little too much on this album.

But the power trio that shares the Van Halen name are consistently tight and flat-out jamming hard enough that it’s easy to ignore Dave’s short comings while still relishing in the fact that Van Halen finally came back and made a great Van Halen album. Did anyone think that would happen? For some reason I kinda doubt that they’ll ever make another studio album.

And that’s cool.