An Unexpected Comeback from Van Halen
Issue   |   Wed, 02/22/2012 - 02:16
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Van Halen’s first album in 28 years, “A Different Kind of Truth,” recreates the type of old-school sound that loyal fans will appreciate.

I was pessimistic about “A Different Kind of Truth,” Van Halen’s first album with original lead singer David Lee Roth in 28 years. If asked to define my opinion in a word, I would have said curious, but certainly not excited. As much as I love listening to the band’s older work, 28 years is a long time. Add to that the band’s mostly mediocre work with post-Roth singer Sammy Hagar and a 14-year gap without a full new album at all, and it was hard for me to see where Van Halen would fit in circa 2012. The supposed-to-be-released-in-November album also continually suffered from a lack of newly-released information throughout the latter half of 2011: not exactly a positive sign. One could say it was the band building anticipation, but my guess would have been concerns about the album’s quality and late period alterations to some of the songs. Things weren’t looking good, and the final harbinger of bad things to come was the release of the sort-of-catchy-in-a-hate-yourself kind of way but undeniably lame and un-Van Halen like first single “Tattoo.” The combination of downright stupid lyrics and relatively sedate music made it seem like the death note for my increasingly dwindling hope.

Consider my pessimism unwarranted. “A Different Kind of Truth” sees Van Halen in mostly top-form, delivering the kind of no-frills hard rock album mostly gone from today’s popular music scene. Contrary to what the record company would want us to think, judged by the too-modern and, dare I say it, almost too teeny-bopper “Tattoo,” this album is old-school, hard-hitting Van Halen through and through. In fact, if Roth could still hit the high notes, I’d have trouble discerning whether this was released in 2012 or 1979 (definitely not 1984 though, as there aren’t any dated 80s keyboards in the mix)! I suppose this means their strategy of taking old, unreleased demos and dressing them up to pass for proper songs paid off. These guys, despite maybe needing to nap a little longer afterwards, still know how to party and they still know how to get serious when need be. And, above all, they still know how to rock.

Again, lead-off track “Tattoo” is kind of catchy. I hate myself for saying it, but listening to it is not a complete waste of time, and, again, at least it doesn’t have any dated 80s keyboards (something the band pulled off with Roth on 1984, but with Hagar, it seemed like that came up dry more often than not). That being said, it’s fairly unrepresentative of the rest of the album, which is a good thing. The album begins with “She’s the Woman,” which is marred by a too-repetitive chorus but features guitar-heroics galore and presents the band in tight form. Likewise, “You and Your Blues” begins decently, but really takes off mid-way through with a short-but-stellar Eddie solo and sounds much more akin to their older work than the similarly mid-paced “Tattoo.”

However, it’s with “China Town” that the band truly takes flight. A fast, frenetic, dark, grimy rocker, this song sounds instantly at home with 1981’s “Fair Warning” and, even more than “You and Your Blues,” absolutely explodes mid-way through with another much longer, dynamite solo. What’s more, they don’t let up through the rest of the song, which proves that they still know how to get down and dirty outside of a solo when need be. It definitely seems like they’re trying to the give their fans their money’s worth on those solos, though. Perhaps feeling like they’re making up for lost time, they throw one into just about every song, and they make sure to leave little doubt that Eddie Van Halen could still school anyone half his age on guitar if he wanted to.

The next song, “Blood and Fire,” begins uneasily before recouping on a strong chorus and, of course, another flat-out fantastic solo. It definitely seems like Eddie is trying to one-up himself at this point in terms of soloing, and, as far as I’m concerned, it works extremely well. “Bullethead,” contrarily, brings the pain throughout the whole song, only suffering a bit from a slightly silly chorus. Thankfully, fitting with the song’s speed-rocker vibe, when the chorus comes, it ends soon afterwards, succumbing to the sheer force of the music surrounding it. “As Is,” for my money the best song on the album, sees the band in full-on tear-down-the-roof mode, riding a dynamite riff and a dark, deliciously nasty energy throughout, only breaking for an equally propulsive chorus. Unfortunately, trouble rears on the first half of the should’ve-been-an-instrumental “Honeybabysweetiedoll.” The music on this unfortunately-named song is stellar as usual, particularly the typically strong riff, but unlike “As Is,” this song’s lyrics never seem to match with its music. Again though, the band rescues a seemingly throw-away song by dropping the lyrics entirely mid-way through and instead simply having fun with a fast-paced groove that really shows Eddie on the top of his game.

“The Trouble with Never,” from its pretentious lyrics to its slightly generic opening riff to the uneasy transition from verse to chorus, seems forced, especially when Roth takes control with one of his gravelly, spoken-word asides. The band repeats this on many songs throughout the album, and although it seems unnecessary, it usually works better than it does here, where Roth’s attempt to seem cool comes off as silly. Thankfully, the ship is righted on “Outta Space,” another no-frills rocker that seems like it could have easily fit in on their 1979 sophomore album. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Van Halen album without a seemingly unfitting down-home blues number. Here, this spot is filled by “Stay Frosty,” and it’s pretty good. With particularly strong, playful lyrics guiding it, this song, despite its acoustic beginning, finds plenty of room for heavier hitting instrumentation and sees the band in full-on “fun” mode.

The album then winds down with the more emotional “Big River,” which reminds me of “The Trouble with Never” but is much better thanks to a more organic overall vibe, a better structure with less forced transitions and more powerful music, including an especially fantastic fade-out. Finally, “Beats Workin’,” the album’s longest song, begins strongly before settling down into a decent but not great groove that works well. While “Big River” would have been a more fitting conclusion and this song isn’t exactly an album highlight, it’s a solid ending to a solid album.

The best compliment I can give “A Different Kind of Truth” is that it doesn’t feel like a Van Halen album released in 2012. If I didn’t know better, I could easily see this being released by a bunch of twenty-something’s in the early 80s just hitting their stride. Essentially, the album works, and the musicians behind it don’t ever feel like they’re trying something they don’t feel comfortable with. Considering the fact that the biggest question going in was whether the passage of time would make an attempt to recreate a decidedly old-school sound seem stilted and unnatural, it’s pretty amazing that the album fits in so well with their other work. There are only a couple of truly great songs here (my vote goes to “As Is” and “Chinatown” as the album highlights), but just about every song is good. It’s 2012, and Van Halen has proven that sometimes an old dog doesn’t need to learn new tricks. That’s exciting to someone who loves old-school music but typically cringes when bands find themselves treading water long past their prime (Speaking of which, there’s supposed to be another Aerosmith album finally coming out this year, but it seems like lead signer Steven Tyler is too busy with his precious American Idol judge spot, so I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see (what a shame). Regardless of what other musicians are wasting their time on, though, it seems like David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and Wolfgang Van Halen, behind the mic, guitar, drums and bass, respectively, will be here to stay. Speaking of which, as for any potential accusations of 20-year-old Wolfgang, Eddie’s son, holding his spot out of nepotism rather than skill, he acquits himself admirably despite his young age and relative lack of experience. I guess when you have two of the greatest musicians of the last 50 years in your family, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn. And, despite the increasingly family-centric nature of the band, it’s not like they’re the Osmonds, and I for one couldn’t be happier that they’re (hopefully) not going away. Here’s hoping Alex and Eddie have an 80-year-old aunt who can play tambourine for the band, too. Just please don’t ask her to play keyboards.