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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Van Halen

A Different Kind of Truth

Review by Rick Damigella

At the risk of you not reading this entire review, let’s get something straight from the get go: Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth is a must-listen album - five out of five. If you don’t have it yet, go and get it, right now, because you are depriving yourself of what will likely go down as the best rock and roll album of 2012. Are we on the same page now? Good. Ok, you are still here, so either you need more convincing or you already have A Different Kind of Truth and want to see what I say about it. Fair enough. Shall we?  First off, let’s get a couple of elephants in the room, out. Those are Michael Anthony and statements made by a former Van Halen singer about the source of some of the songs on the album.

Yes, David Lee Roth is back, but bassist Michael Anthony is not and I’ve heard it from too many people that it “isn’t Van Halen without Michael.“ Well, you are wrong. Admittedly, until I heard this album I was in agreement with you. Not any more. Wolfgang Van Halen knows exactly what he is doing on the bass guitar. Really, should there have been any doubt? He’s a third-generation musician of the Van Halen family after all. Yes, I miss Mike, especially his backing vocal harmonies, but even those have been more than approximated by the new line up in excellent fashion. Next is the non-issue of the band revisiting old demos for many of the songs on this album. For some reason, Sammy Hagar seized upon this during interviews leading up to and around the release of this album in January. Now, I love Sammy Hagar’s music, from Montrose through Chickenfoot, but really, this is exactly what many fans would love to hear from their favorite bands. Van Halen does indeed revisit old demos on this album, many of which have been bootlegged for years and now reside in the ever expanding memory banks of YouTube. Dusting off (mostly) unheard demos is just a part of what makes this album so damn good. The other and biggest part is, it sounds like classic Van Halen.

They have not tried to reinvent the wheel or be something they are not. There’s no flannel. No dropped tuning. No musical trilogies in D minor. No Auto-Tune. A Different Kind of Truth is an unapologetic blast of rock and roll the way only Van Halen can deliver it. It is a fun album to listen to. And really, don’t you think we could all use more fun in the world we currently live in? This is the album that should have been the follow up to 1984. But even saying that, it doesn’t sound dated. While it includes several demos dating back to 1976, it doesn’t wallow in trying to sound like reliving past glories. This is Van Halen picking up where they left off. There isn’t even an attempt to rewrite history either, as a couple of the songs draw on the direction the band took in the Van Hagar-era. To help tell some of the stories behind the songs, I’ve enlisted the aid of a true Van Halen expert in musician and writer Frank Meyer (check him out in The Street Walkin’ Cheetahs and Angus Khan) who has contributed his own incredibly deep knowledge about Van Halen and some of the source material that makes up A Different Kind of Truth.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Tattoo

This track is a reworking of the song “Down in Flames” which dates back in Van Halen history to at least 1977. Live recordings of it exist from a show at LA’s Whisky A Go-Go from New Year’s Eve 1977. The big difference between this and the original it has a more radio-friendly, Van Hagar-era stomp to it to remind us this isn’t history being revised., just extended. This is big, loud and fun with just a touch of radio sheen polished on it.

She’s the Woman

As Frank Meyer tells it, this track appears in many forms, including from the Van Halen demos produced by Gene Simmons. As such, this has the feeling of old-school Van Halen all over it. The chorus and the hook are the same, but Roth has rewritten the verses. The original bridge from this song is already familiar to fans as it became part of “Mean Street” from 1981’s Fair Warning album, so a new one has been added for this version.

You and Your Blues

The core guitar melody and chorus vocals of this song feel like it could have been something found on 5150, had it been Roth at the mic instead. The lyrics name check songs by Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Gladys Knight and the Pips and T-Bone Walker in a glorious kiss off to an unnamed woman and the blues she’s caused.

China Town

According to Meyer, this feels like an all-new track, with the possibility of it being sourced from an older demo. The full-tilt pace and street-wise lyrics make it feel in the same vein as “Atomic Punk” and “Mean Streets.” Those who still aren’t convinced Wolfgang can play haven’t listened to this song.

Blood and Fire

This is the song that should have been the straight-to-number-one follow up to “Jump,” and there is a good reason for that. As Meyer tells it, during the dark days following the success of 1984 and Roth working on his solo album Crazy From the Heat, Eddie Van Halen recorded instrumentals for the movie “The Wild Life.” One of the pieces used in the film was a track called “Ripley,” which, with a new performance and lyrics from Roth, became “Blood and Fire.” If one takes a critical listen and look at the lyrics, it can be inferred this is the bands true declaration they are back (“…we came through blood and fire…”). Roth is well known to say “look at all of the people here tonight” while on stage. This phrase gets used multiple times in this song, along with the statement “I told ya I was coming back.” Add in one of the finest examples of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo abilities and this becomes the true bridge from the year 1985 to the year 2012. If you download one track from the album, make it this one.

Bullethead

This is another track which dips back into the 70’s. Recordings of it from the New Year’s Eve show at the Whisky in ‘77 exist. It is a note-for-note update of the song with new verses. The solo, along with the one from “Tattoo” are identical to their proto versions. And frankly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

As Is

As Frank Meyer tells it, this track originates from reunion sessions Van Halen did in 2000. He actually heard an early version of this along with four other songs from those sessions from a source close to the band. He goes on to say that there have been some additions but it is essentially the same song, and an exceptionally good one it is. It’s foot to floor and just a ridiculous example of why Eddie Van Halen has not lost his status as a guitar god.

Honeybabysweetiedoll

This is easily the most unusual track Van Halen has ever put to tape. It sounds like nothing they’ve done before or since. For those still hung up on the band revisiting old demos, just stop, and play this one loud.

The Trouble With Never

Eddie Van Halen goes off into a very Hendrix vein with the riffing. The chorus and lyrics are classic David Lee Roth and will lead the listener into singing right along with the band.

Outta Space

This song is an update of the Gene Simmons-era demo known as “Let’s Get Rockin’.” The lyrics have been updated obviously (seek out the original on YouTube for comparison). Wolfgang Van Halen gets a workout on this and the two preceding tracks (best heard during the solo on this one) but along with uncle Alex Van Halen, they hold down the bottom end expertly.

Stay Frosty

And now comes my favorite song on the album. OK, really it’s a tie between this and “Blood and Fire” but the two tracks are so different and the truth is two is better than one. The comparisons to “Ice Cream Man” are unavoidable, but really, this is more to it than that. This is Diamond Dave delivering some of his personal philosophy on life. He even has a tattoo on his hip that says “Stay Frosty” in Latino script. Get the album, read the lyrics (yes! They actually included them!) and learn more about his mantra. During the track, once the acoustic blues fun ends, the trio of surnamed Van Halens erupt into the most ludicrously fun rock out moment on the album. Seriously, if you don’t leap out of a seated position and either dance or air guitar with abandon once the riffs kick in, please get yourself to a doctor, stat.

Big River

Frank Meyer tells me this is a rewrite of an old demo called “Big Trouble” with updated lyrics. He also mentions there is a James Gang vibe going on (Van Halen used to open for the Gang). Meyer goes on to say that Roth is big on the big analogies, tracing this back to the original demo, followed by another song called “Big Trouble” and “Big Train,” both from his solo years and now to an album cover with a big train on it and this song. This song’s groove is all kinds of big rocking fun.

Beats Workin’

This is a rewrite of the song “Put Out The Lights” with a very different chorus. Radio disc jockeys please note the extensive use of cow bell in the bridge, so I dare you to include this the next time you program a set of songs with cow bell in them. Eddie Van Halen’s opening riff, supported by Alex Van Halen’s pound make this a strong closer for an album that is 28 years over due. And while the mighty Van Halen are currently on the road, reminding us why they are the kings of good time rock and roll, fans can only hope that once the tour ends, they get right back into the studio and record a follow up album worthy of A Different Kind of Truth.

 
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