February 8, 2012
Review by David DiPietro
"A Different Kind of Truth"
Label: Interscope Records
We unfortunately live in a digital era which does everything in its power to render each artist's new album a worthless enterprise by the time it hits i-Tunes, or in rarer cases record store shelves. The availability and ease to obtain music online has virtually taken the fun and mystery out of the term 'new release.' So, when news broke about Van Halen's first original recording with David Lee Roth in almost 30 years, it qualified as being a noteworthy, significant event sans any Internet "buzz."
Web chatter about the imminent release of the long awaited Roth infused production, A Different Kind of Truth, had longtime followers of the band pondering the possibilities. Would the new disc continue the jump this particular incarnation of Van Halen had taken with their synth-driven power pop album, 1984? Or was there an off-hand chance the faithful hard rock fandom would be treated to a truly inspiring, if not revolutionary, recording? And when I say revolutionary, I mean groundbreaking. I'm talking an album that would throw down the gauntlet and provide a flange-laden, hammer-on tinged blueprint to the 10-year future of rock guitar, as the band's superlative, self-titled slab in '78 so masterfully accomplished.
Unfortunately, this album turned out to be a truth of a different kind. Roth's return to the fold has produced a so-so recording of mostly rehashed ideas that after a few listens, sounds rushed in both conception and execution. When the album does begin to show signs of packing a musical wallop – like three-quarters of the way through – the hoped for fireworks misfire; the dreamed of sparks flying from Eddie's guitar, or the catchy lyrics that Roth provided during the classic Van Halen era before Sammy Hagar, never materialize.
Alas, neither a cathedral nor a house of pain, the majority of this offering is merely underwhelming and forgettable. Van Halen doesn't try to compete with itself, and certainly doesn't even attempt to pay homage to its vaunted past. Unlike any Van Halen album preceding it, A Different Kind of Truth is a somewhat casual collection of tunes, devoid of typical big event fanfare - surely a first for the Pasadena Party Slammers. While the songs showcase a band that seems to be comfortable within its late middle-age skin, there's no attempt, nor slightest concern, with making any gestures towards breaking new musical ground to reclaim old glories. Yes, A Different Kind of Truth is exactly that.
"Tattoo," the surprisingly lightweight debut single from the album, effortlessly hit No. 1 on download charts around the world. Simultaneously, the single managed to disappoint the majority of the bands' rabid fan base (according to VH forums online). In the end, you had to wonder whether the majority of those purchasing the song did so because of Van Halen's storied past or, sheer curiosity at the prospect of having Roth back on board for the first time since Ronald Reagan's first term in office.
As far as "Diamond" Dave's voice, it's in the fair to fine range. What's really sad about this album is the fact it lacks the instrumental pyrotechnics that graced even the most mundane of the Roth-era releases, such as Diver Down. Much of Roth's snarky, tongue-in-cheek humor which characterized the first Roth era and defined the front man/ carnival barker, were missing throughout as well.
"She's the Woman" is another track the band debuted when they played at Cafe Wha in NYC this past January. The song's origins date back to the Gene Simmons-produced demos from 1976-77. The reconstituted idea should have stayed on the shelf gathering dust. The fact these two opening tracks were rehashed ideas from 35 years ago were troubling indicators this reconstituted group had trouble gelling as a creative unit. Let's face it, if the music wasn't good enough to release back when, why attempt to bring these songs back to life now? This troubling development of leaning on mid-'70s demos would repeat itself on half the album.
"Blood and Fire," a mixed bag itself, is also a later retread. It was originally recorded by Eddie Van Halen for the film, Wild Life, in 1984. Though lyrics to the song suggest that it will make it into the bands' new live set ("Look at all the people here tonight"), I find it hard to picture Roth getting worked up about it. Don't expect him to attempt one of his patented high-kicks, let alone 20-foot leaps from the drum riser. The song is decent, but lacks anything particularly catchy or even memorably 'Van Halen.'
Lyrical references to Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones aside, "You and Your Blues," has to be one of the most tired and mundane recordings of any Roth-era Van Halen tune in memory. The rhythm section sounds stagnant - never thought I would miss Michael Anthony - and the song proceeds to pile on lyrical and instrumental cliché upon cliché, for nearly four excruciating minutes. Roth appears to be straining for a higher range vocally. Ironically, his efforts sometimes remind you of ex-vocalist Hagar's ear-piercing, Tarzanian squeal. If this song is your idea of a good time, immediately rush out and get your hands on every Black Oak Arkansas album you can possibly find.
Worse still, "Honeybabysweetiedoll," possibly marks a new low in the Van Halen cannon (with Roth on vocals anyway). It proves conclusively that what might sound to be a decent or funny idea during a drunken rehearsal, does not necessarily a good song make. This tune takes several 'experimental' steps, all tentative, each one seemingly in the wrong direction, and is not nearly as humorous as perhaps intended.
A handful of tracks on the album keep it from being a total dud and not coincidentally, they all seem to be tailor-made for playing live. "China Town" features some very good double bass drum work from Alex. It also has some tasteful licks, and a crackling solo by Eddie playing through a wah-wah pedal, channeling one of his childhood heroes, Jimi Hendrix. "As Is," another fast rocker, goes furthest in this collection to capturing the essence and dynamics, as well as the humor, of the first Roth-era Van Halen. Along with "China Town," this may be one of Van Halen's better tunes since 1984, both the year and the album.
Though simplicity and brevity were never one of Van Halen's calling cards, a few tunes here don't make it past the three-minute mark. "Outta Space," (another '77 retread, originally called "Let's Get Rockin'"), seems like it could have been cut from a Ramones' cloth. It has a funky punk tempo and speed featuring a truly raunchy guitar sound, with a full compliment of moronic lyrics thrown in for good measure. Compared with most the tunes on this record, that's not a bad thing, and turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
"Bullethead," though slight and not as fully developed, is yet another blast from the past, or in this case, from 1970's demos. The sparseness and economy of this tune (and several other tracks) sound as if they were first-takes or rehearsal ideas that were never fully fleshed-out before being taken into the studio. While this works well with bands that rely on spontaneity and improvisation, Van Halen has always been a unit whose cohesiveness comes from its very deliberate planning and timing, to the point where even their flubs and apparent sloppiness are well-rehearsed schtick.
The tune "Stay Frosty," sounds like a knockoff of "Ice Cream Man," in parts. There's enough musical interplay to keep it afloat, though it clearly lacks the out-of-left-field charm of the original that made it such a standout on the debut album. It's not nearly as dynamic or memorable in the hooks department either.
The last two tracks on the album (I needlessly again mention, are rewrites of 1977 demo recordings, formerly known in bootleg trading circles as "Big Trouble" and "Put Out the Lights"), now entitled "Big River" and "Beats Workin'". They are fair-to decent songs in their own right. However, one can't help wonder if the title to the latter is a conscious wink by the band to its fans who are privy to the genesis of half of this album's songs.
'Flogging a Dead Horse' might have been a better working title for this record, especially one constructed out of demo tapes 35 years old. Instead we get A Different Kind of Truth, which in itself has a bit of irony tied into the name. Make no mistake, sales receipts from this recording will flood in Tsunami-style, and the upcoming North American tour kicking off in Louisville Feb. 18 will do record-breaking business. Whether or not Roth is back with the band for more than just this one appearance is anyone's guess. If it does come to pass, here's hoping Eddie Van Halen has that one last glimmer of musical genius left in him to create magic again. Ending it with Van Halen III and A Different Kind of Truth is no way to cap an otherwise brilliant recording career.