If punk rock showed that “anyone could do it,” Van Halen’s classic debut album showed that it still took actual talent to truly make a lasting musical statement. This bombastic, over the top collection of innovative guitar heroics and arrogant showmanship sounds as fresh today as when it was first released. Back then, it came from out of nowhere to excite - make that completely astonish - audiences. The core of the band was guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s jaw dropping speed and flair; his two-handed finger-tapping technique employed on his “Eruption” solo has been so slavishly copied that it's become a part of virtually every hard rock guitarist’s vocabulary since. Unlike Clapton, Page, etc., Van Halen's guitar sound wasn't blues-based, but his lightning fast hammer ons and tremolo runs ushered the guitar into a new era; small wonder that for years he won seemingly every guitar magazine poll. Meanwhile, frontman David Lee Roth possessed an extraordinarily obnoxious but loveable charisma that simply demanded attention. Given the self-parody that he later became, it's hard to explain to the young ones today just how cool Diamond Dave once was; simply put, he was one of the best frontmen ever. His smooth yelps and screams were perfectly complemented by bassist Michael Anthony’s strong backing vocals to complete an explosive musical ensemble. It helped that Eddie was also a great songwriter with a knack for memorable, meaty riffs in addition to his flashy ultra-fast guitar solos; for his part, underrated brother Alex anchored many of their songs with his immediately identifiable drum thump. “Runnin' With The Devil” starts the album off with an all-time VH classic, led by its big riffs, Dave's hammy scream-filled vocals and devil may care attitude, a singable harmonized chorus, and of course a cool guitar solo. Then comes "Eruption," which I already mentioned and which was ground zero for the school of shred; plus, does it take balls to make the second song on your debut album an unaccompanied guitar solo or what? Their cover of The Kinks' “You Really Got Me,” one of (too) many to come, is typically over the top and uniquely their own; it’s also pretty great. Not nearly as great as the heavy “Ain’t Talkin' 'Bout Love,” however, which may very well be the best VH song ever, led by its great riffs and catchy chorus. This one has an intense surge and a real edge to it, plus how can you not love Dave's dramatic "I been to the edge" bridge and the "hey hey hey!" finale? Anyway, “I’m The One” is definitely an underrated gem, with more great riffs and a monstrous rhythmic surge accompanied by evocative harmonies and even a cute a capella section. On the more pop oriented front, “Jamie’s Cryin'” and "Feel Your Love Tonight" share similar, simple ingredients, used extremely effectively, mostly more memorable riffs and catchy harmonized choruses. Sandwiched between them is “Atomic Punk,” which delivers a heavy, dark metallic assault - hide the kiddies from this one. As per most albums, this one ends weaker than it begins, as the last 3 songs are merely good, though they are all that. "Little Dreamer" is slower and more atmospheric than the rest, though Eddie still solos his ass off, and that's also true for "Ice Cream Man," a fun novelty cover (the first but certainly not the last such song). Lastly, "On Fire" delivers nuthin' fancy, riff-based hard rock that well, rocks, not spectacularly so but it's still enjoyable, with its most notable characteristic being its big chorus. Anyway, the critics of the day (windbags like Marsh and Christgau) found them too “obnoxious” and “showy” and scorned their horny lyrics, but my guess is that they just weren’t in on the joke; these guys did everything with a knowing wink and their music provided the perfect soundtrack for fun-filled weekend parties . Despite a Hall Of Fame-worthy career, they never really topped this debut album; they then hit the road in support of Black Sabbath, who they famously blew off the stage, thereby jump starting Ozzy Osbourne's solo career.
Van Halen II (Warner Bros. ’79) Rating: A
Another seriously fun party record, II’s songwriting drops several rungs below the exceptional debut but is hardly a sophomore slump, in fact it’s a great record. Again, Eddie’s flamboyant guitar playing leads the way, with Diamond Dave’s goofy frontman persona lending levity. “Dance The Night Away” became their first chart hit, and it’s a great pop song - that’s surely not about dancing! There's this perception that Dave was a great frontman who couldn't really sing, but one listen to this song reveals that to be a load of crap, and Anthony's backing vocals were also a major asset and an essential component to the classic Van Halen sound. “Bottoms Up!” and “Beautiful Girls” (another radio favorite) also feature all the elements of a great VH tune: cool riffs, hammed up vocals, catchy harmonizing, and lighthearted lyrics about partying with luscious ladies. Although not quite at the "Eruption" level, “Spanish Fly” is a short acoustic flamenco-flavored instrumental which showed that Eddie could tantalize on any stringed instrument, while “Somebody Get Me A Doctor,” “Light Up The Sky,” and especially “D.O.A.” are heavy-hitting hard rockers sure to please. Although “Women In Love” is a surprisingly pretty and effective semi-ballad with a stellar chorus (Anthony again proving his worth on backing vocals), the Linda Rondstadt cover “You're No Good” falls flat and seems pretty pointless, while “Outta Love Again” features some impressive Eddie/Alex interplay but never completely ignites. Still, “Dance The Night Away” and "Beautiful Girls" would be slam dunks for my "best of Van Halen" playlist, and "Bottoms Up!," "D.O.A.," “Somebody Get Me A Doctor,” and “Light Up The Sky” would also likely make an extended version of said playlist, possibly “Women In Love” as well. All in all, despite inevitably failing to match the consistent quality of their all-time classic first album, this was still an extremely entertaining second installment within a legendary career.
Woman and Children First (Warner Bros. ’80) Rating: A-
This largely overlooked third album is primarily remembered for two of VH's finest songs, specifically the heavy riff rocker “And The Cradle Will Rock...” and the explosive jungle epic “Everybody Wants Some!!,” but everything is worth hearing on what may be Van Halen’s heaviest and most experimental release. “And The Cradle Will Rock...” is notable for its descending riffs, nasty mid-tempo chug, and of course Dave's screams (even if you still insist that he can't sing, you gotta admit that he's a great screamer), while “Everybody Wants Some!!” kicks ass, simple as that, with Alex's tribal beats, Eddie's heavy riff interjections, a catchy chorus about everybody's favorite topic, and a patented Dave spoken word bridge. While these songs are certified classics, any hard rock fan should also enjoy the big grinding grooves of “Fools,” which takes a while to get going (at 6 minutes it's the longest song of the Roth era) and could be more memorable but still scores via its harmonized chants and lotsa wailing guitar. The metallic chugger “Romeo Delight” and the eccentric speed rocker “Loss Of Control” (prefaced by the Sabbath-y segue "Tora! Tora!") are also sure to please the dedicated fan, this album's target audience as there's not much in the way of top 40 material. The lamestream music press was therefore quick to dub this one a failure, though most hardcore VH fans would beg to differ, as Diamond Dave is at his most gloriously over the top and Eddie supplies prime guitar acrobatics as per usual, giving each of these songs a unique flavor. In addition, "Take Your Whiskey Home,” “Could This Be Magic?,” and "In A Simple Rhyme,” all of which start mellow before taking off into altogether different directions - satisfyingly bluesy, a catchy light number a la "Ice Cream Man" (a rare acoustic showcase and the song from which this album takes its name), and a melodic rocker with resplendent harmonies - reveal a growing diversity and a restless adventurousness. Sure, not everything they try works and some of these songs could be a bit hookier, plus the album's skimpy 33 minute running time leaves you wanting more. Critics also carp about the sex 'n' booze lyrics, but they need to lighten up, as Women And Children First rocks and is a prime Diamond Dave-era Van Halen album - need I say more?
Fair Warning (Warner Bros. ’81) Rating: A+
This album is rarely mentioned when the topic is Van Halen, probably because like Women and Children First it spawned no major hits. This one has tons of should've been hits, however, and at the very least songs such as "Mean Street," "Unchained," and "So This Is Love?" should be familiar to fans of "classic rock radio." Anyway, putting aside the album's disappointing commercial performance, I wouldn't hesitate to call this the best VH album aside from their spectacular debut. Like most of their albums with Dave, Fair Warning has its own distinct personality, which is darker and more menacing than anything the boys had given us to date. The killer riff kicking off the nasty “Mean Street” lets you know that lighthearted party songs are not the order of the day, especially when daddy's little girl winds up in “Dirty Movies,” another excellent moody entry if not quite the stone cold killer that was “Mean Street.” The guitar on this record is simply awesome, and some of their catchiest and most melodic choruses appear on songs such as “Sinner’s Swing!,” “Hear About It Later,” and “So This Is Love?” “Sinner’s Swing!” ups the speed and the attitude, though an f-bomb precluded it from getting any airplay, “Hear About It Later” boasts one of Dave's best screams and like several songs here has a moodier overall vibe, and “So This Is Love?” is simply one of their most perfect pop songs (how was this one not a hit?). Then there’s “Unchained,” an all-time VH classic for sure which contains probably Eddie's greatest opening riff and Dave’s most primal scream while taking the time to add humor as well (“one break, coming up!!!”). Though VH are often incorrectly dismissed by humorless critics as being one-dimensional sexual deviants, again the band showcases their underrated versatility by experimenting successfully. The musically stripped down “Push Comes To Shove” is another convincingly atmospheric blues turn (this one with funk and reggae overtones plus some Allan Holdsworth inspired guitar playing), while synthesizers are introduced on both the industrial-ish instrumental “Sunday Afternoon In The Park” (an awesome bit of moody evil) and the gurgling speed rocker “One Foot Out The Door,” which also features a wicked guitar solo (unfortunately both of these fine songs fall just short of the 2-minute mark, but better not enough than too much, right?). Why the greatness of this album isn't widely recognized is beyond me, and my only complaint is that like most early VH albums it’s too short at 31 minutes.
Diver Down (Warner Bros. ’82) Rating: B
Considering that this was a highly talented band that appeared to be in their prime, this was a lazy and disappointing effort, though it’s still pretty enjoyable for the most part and it does show off a lighter, more playful side to the band. On the plus side, “Little Guitars” (including its intro) is one of the greatest VH songs ever; melodic, pretty, powerful, and rocking, with exceptional (Spanish flavored) guitar from Eddie (no surprise) and with Dave singing sympathetically (big surprise). “Hang ‘Em High” and "The Full Bug" are also good speedy hard rockers, while “Secrets” again shows a more relaxed side to the band, with solid results. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” is a really good, amped-up cover of another Kinks song, while their cover of “Dancing In The Street” is also enjoyable, with Eddie’s synths giving the song a different kind of bounce than the original. But when did Van Halen become a cover band? Though I dig its menacing instrumental intro ("Intruder"), their version of “(Oh) Pretty Woman” is significantly inferior to Roy Orbison's original and therefore seems pretty pointless a la “You’re No Good.” In addition, "Cathedral" is a skippable instrumental interlude, while “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” is a novelty jingle-like number (that’s dad Jan Van Halen, himself an accomplished musician, stealing the show on clarinet), and “Happy Trails” a lighthearted joke that barely lasts a minute. Both of the latter songs are covers as well and feature minimal guitar; had the band run completely out of new ideas? Anyway, the album’s total running time is a scant 31:31, a bare minimum of which is devoted to real Van Halen songs, though the band would soon regroup and again give their fans their money's worth.
1984 (Warner Bros. ’84) Rating: A
Reasserting their greatness, Van Halen came roaring back with 1984, which featured the bands customary strengths while adding new ingredients. The end result was a resounding artistic and commercial success that made for a stellar summer pop rock album. Van Halen effortlessly elevate keyboards within the mix on the bouncy “Jump,” the band’s lone #1 hit, the moody, dramatic “I’ll Wait,” and the short ambient title tune. Not that this album doesn’t rock, mind you. “Panama” (about a car not the country) and “Hot For Teacher” (best video ever?) are classic VH rockers, with blistering riffs, propulsive beats, and Diamond Dave at his showy, obnoxious best (i.e. "reach down, between my legs"...). The rest of this album doesn’t quite keep the pace of the hits, but 1984 is filler-free and contains several enjoyable album tracks with loads of Eddie guitar fireworks. "Top Jimmy," a tribute to James Paul Koncek of the band Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, is notable for its fast groove and dual vocals, "Drop Dead Legs" contains memorable mid-tempo riffs and catchy vocal hooks before some vintage Eddie guitar soloing closes it out, "Girl Gone Bad" is moody and rocking and maintains an impressive intensity throughout (it has some nice slower sections as well), and "House Of Pain" is a good rhythm-based groover with more great Eddie guitar. Still, fine though these tracks are (especially "Drop Dead Legs" and "Girl Gone Bad"), it's the big hits, all among the best VH songs ever, that this album is primarily remembered for, “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” in particular being personal favorites; the latter is certainly Alex's shining moment, and who can forget poor Waldo? The main problem with this album is that as per usual it's a bit skimpy, and, though they seemed to add a fresh new element at the time, there's a dated '80s aspect to the keyboards that makes for a minor irritant. 1984 is still great, though, and fans worldwide agreed, as this was the breakthrough release on the back of which the band went from being highly respected hard rock stars to international pop superstars. Unfortunately, this would be their last album with Dave at the mike for nearly three decades, as a swollen head spurred by some solo success (covers of “California Girls” and “Just A Gigolo”) convinced Dave that he could make it without Eddie and company. Dave's solo career was worthwhile at first but soon sunk to embarrassing depths, while Van Halen had significant commercial success with replacement Sammy Hagar (i.e. Van Hagar), though artistically speaking the Diamond Dave years will always be remembered as the band's peak. As such, it’s difficult not to think about what might have been for this groundbreaking band, who hit an accessible peak with this outing.
5150 (Warner Bros. ’86) Rating: A-
The first Van Hagar album is the best Van Hagar album. Van Halen were always big fans of Montrose, so it made sense that when Diamond Dave "big timed" them they regrouped by hiring former Montrose singer turned journeyman solo artist Sammy Hagar. While not an altogether inspired choice - their years together certainly can't compare to the David Lee Roth years - I think that the "Van Hagar" era was better than most people remember, and 5150 was certainly a fine album, sporting no less than six songs that regularly received airplay back in the day. "Good Enough" introduces the album with a regrettable Roth-like intro that seems forced, but Sammy soon settles in on what is otherwise a good straight up hard rocker, and the speedy, highly energized "Get Up" could be similarly described and also makes for a solid album track. As for the hits, the biggest one was “Why Can’t This Be Love,” and indeed its memorable keyboard riffs and catchy chorus was tailor made for radio. Elsewhere, Eddie also effectively intersperses keyboards on the excellent “Dreams,” which is far more reflective than your customary Dave tune but which is still melodic and rockin', and the also-melodic, extremely well done power ballad “Love Walks In.” This was the band's most blatantly commercial album to date, as 5150 was less reliant on Eddie’s guitar heroics, which remain impressive of course, albeit toned down, than on his strong songwriting. Also, Sammy’s somewhat dream-obsessed lyrics at least seem more mature than Roth’s (if not as clever), though Van Halen wasn’t necessarily a group that you wanted to grow up. As such, some of the fun is gone, as Roth’s exuberance is missed; besides, who ever wanted VH to sing ballads, anyway? Still, though the band no longer exudes effortless fun, and in spite of a few too many "hair band" worthy moments and sounds that obviously date the album to the ‘80s (big bright keyboards, computerized drums, etc.), I heartily recommend 5150 (named after Eddie’s home recording studio), which contains other top-notch songs such as “Summer Nights,” “Best Of Both Worlds,” and the title track. Led by its great riffs and sing along chorus, "Summer Nights" just might be my favorite, as the song is exactly what you'd want it to be based on its title; I especially enjoy the fadeout ending. "The Best Of Both Worlds" is notable for its stop/start riffs, some slinky verses, and a more explosive but still catchy chorus, while the also-catchy, simply terrific title track may well be Sammy's best vocal with the band, highlighted by some high notes there at the end that even Dave would likely approve of (at least secretly). Anyway, Eddie’s strong songwriting and Sammy's solid vocals ensured that Roth’s loss would be minimized, at least temporarily, as “Inside,” the last track and a true waste of time, is the only failed attempt here. However, more would be coming on subsequent efforts, making most fans yearn for the good old days with Diamond Dave.
OU812 (Warner Bros. 88) Rating: B
Although devastated by Dave’s departure, I was encouraged by 5150, as well as by Roth’s successful first solo album, Eat ‘Em And Smile. After a solid follow up, Skyscraper, Roth's career minus stellar sidemen such as Stevie Vai and Billy Sheehan soon devolved into a sad joke, however, as Dave badly miscalculated both his own talent and who the real star of Van Halen was. 5150 was a #1 album, after all, something that they never achieved with Dave, but OU812 (a tongue in cheek reference to Roth’s album) was a somewhat disappointing second installment that dampened my initial enthusiasm about Van Hagar. Although not a bad album by any means, too few of these songs are memorable, though Hagar’s obnoxious caterwauling and the weak production (try finding Anthony’s bass) unfortunately stand out. Keyboards and cheesy if catchy harmonized choruses carry the few instances of strong songwriting, including the overtly poppy “Feels So Good,” the slinky, low-key funk blues of “Finish What Ya Started,” and “When It’s Love,” which packs a bit more of a punch despite being another "power ballad" (Sammy really shines on "Feels So Good" and "When It's Love"). Also worthwhile are "Mine All Mine" and "Source Of Infection," a pair of intense, chugging rockers, the lyrically unsubtle but musically appealing “Black and Blue,” and the 7+ minute “Cabo Wabo” (later the name of Hagar’s improbable tequila empire), which is over-long but features some frenetic guitar solos and singable harmonies. As you can probably tell, this is more of a groove record than a song-based collection, except for the ultra-poppy exceptions, and I can't help but wonder if Eddie could've crafted more memorable, hook-filled compositions. Then again, he already did that on 5150, and this album does cook up some solid grooves and of course Eddie's playing still rules, though like most people I wish that there were more guitars and less synths here. Still, despite ending the album with a bluesy, loose, and fun off the cuff cover of Little Feat’s “A Apolitical Blues” - fun being a word that used to define VH but which I rarely use to describe this album - overall OU812 was a significant comedown in quality that had me seriously doubting the band’s future. But the band would strongly answer the bell one last time.
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Bros. ’91) Rating: B+
The hardest hitting (and second best) item in the Van Hagar cannon kicks some serious tail from start to finish and is well worth revisiting as a result. In addition to containing the blatantly poppy but extremely strong and still rocking hits “Runaround” and “Top Of The World,” the album also contains the raging first single “Poundcake” (notable for its cool power drill riffs and some vintage Sammy vocalizing) and another catchy should've been hit by virtue of its evocative, singable chorus, “The Dream Is Over.” There’s only one keyboard dominated track, and it’s another classic, the dramatic hit single “Right Now,” which is less notable for its call to arms commentary than its stellar music. Alas, the song personally makes me recall the pre-game promo before Game Six of the 1993 NBA Playoff Series between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks (i.e. "the Charles Smith Series"), when my Knicks were sent packing by Michael Jordan as per usual. Anyway, this album clocks in at 52 minutes, a nice change from a band that had in the past routinely shortchanged their fans when it came to album running times. This allows the band to stretch out on certain tracks and flex their considerable chops, with the underrated Alex whipping up a percussive fury on “Pleasure Dome.” Elsewhere, “Judgement Day” is another intense chugging rocker, “Spanked” (about phone sex) is slower, more melodic, and sorta funky, and “Man On A Mission” is elevated by its twisting riffs; all are solid album tracks. On the downside, you get some predictably weak lyrics ("I just love my baby's poundcake"?), and overbearing vocals from Sammy, plus a few generic melodies too many. Still, despite at times going overboard on the squealing guitar sound so beloved of hair bands, by and large Eddie plays up a storm (“In ‘N’ Out” for example), and F.U.C.K. (a none too subtle nod to Tipper Gore and her crusading cronies at the PMRC) was an impressively hard rocking return to form.
Balance (Warner Bros. ’95) Rating: B
OU812 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge were major successes, if not quite on the 5150 level, and the solid but should’ve been better live album Live: Right Here, Right Now also fared fairly well, but the band’s commercial fortunes started to slide on Balance, though that was likely due to the post-Nirvana musical climate as much as anything else. Then again, maybe things would’ve been different if VH had delivered a better album. Again, a la OU812, Balance isn’t a bad album, in fact it’s grown on me over the years to the point where I now think that most of it is pretty good, and the extremely (overly) poppy and sentimental “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” and the intense, stomping semi-power ballad “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do),” the album’s best song which features a stellar Sammy vocal, were in fact minor hits (and the album did hit #1 on the Billboard charts just like the prior three Hagar albums though it failed to get the same amount of airplay as its predecessors). But too much of the material here is nondescript, the band’s attempts at experimentation (two space wasting instrumental interludes, for example) don’t really work, and even strong rockers such as “The Seventh Seal” and “Aftershock” don’t really offer anything new. Elsewhere, I dig Eddie’s soaring, epic guitar lines on “Baluchitherium,” another instrumental, and “Amsterdam” delivers loud and catchy (if dumb) fun, but the overblown piano ballad “Not Enough” is a bit too Bryan Adams, and “Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” merely offers pleasant enough VH-by-numbers mid-tempo fluff (I do like its big harmonized chorus, however). By the time of the last song, “Feelin’,” another intense semi-power ballad (this one nearly 7-minutes long) on which Sammy shines, Balance starts to seem awfully long, as it definitely suffers from “cd era length,” perhaps the band feeling that they owed their fans a bit more after a rare four year layoff. So, even though this is the best produced Van Hagar album (Bruce Fairbairn take a bow) and Sammy even writes some good lyrics for a change, it’s no secret that inter-band relations weren’t the best during this time, which gives the album a darker feel but which took its toll on the band. In short, fatigue had set in, though they weren’t nearly as tired as I am by what’s happened since. By now, most of you probably know the story; Sammy was given the boot soon after Balance, and after Dave recorded two new tracks for a botched “best of” collection (The Best Of Van Halen, Vol. 1), everyone assumed that a full-fledged reunion was in the works, which excited the many people who had waited years for this seemingly inevitable regrouping to happen. Eddie had other ideas, however, as Roth was then also dumped in favor of former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, hardly an inspired choice given his vocal similarities to Hagar. The resulting album, Van Halen III, was as bad as you’d expect, and subsequent unproductive years yielded only another botched “best of” (why are the wrong people always put in charge of these things?), the 2-cd The Best Of Both Worlds, which the band used to promote a reunion tour in 2004 - with Sammy, not Dave. Previously, Sam and Dave had actually toured together, but of course it was a total disaster, and in between all this there was an unnecessary amount of nasty mudslinging between the increasingly strange Eddie (an alcoholic) and seemingly everyone else (aside from brother Alex). Then again, in between slamming his former bandmates Eddie managed to beat back cancer, so I suppose an eventual new Van Halen album isn’t out of the question...Update: And what do you know, in 2007 the band did regroup for a highly successful world tour with Roth but minus Anthony, whose bass slot was filled by Eddie's teenage son Wolfgang.
A Different Kind Of Truth (Interscope ’12) Rating: A-
Van Halen with Sammy Hagar were a very good band, but Van Halen with David Lee Roth were an awesome band, one of the top 10 hard rock bands of all-time, in my opinion. Many people share that opinion and waited in vain for Dave to come back where he belongs, and when it finally happened in 2007 the tour was a rousing success that was only mildly dampened by the seemingly callous way they dismissed Michael Anthony. Now, to play a comeback "greatest hits" tour and have it be a success is one thing, many bands have done it, but to come back with their first new studio album in 14 years, and their first in 28 years with Roth, and have it actually be good, well that's extremely rare. Shockingly, this album is not only good, it's really good and is actually worthy of being compared to prior David Lee Roth albums. For one thing, it's relentlessly heavy and aggressive, with nary a keyboard or a mid-tempo philosophical ballad in sight (both trademarks of the Hagar years), as Eddie reminds people why he's the most important guitar player of the past 35 years, and Alex likewise plays like a man with something to prove. Michael Anthony's high-pitched backing vocals are missed, as is his gregarious personality on tour I'm sure (I haven't seen them live), but Wolfgang (now all of 20) is a more than able replacement. But the biggest surprise here is how good Roth sounds; sure, he can't hit the high notes anymore and he doesn't even try to, but he still has the cocksure swagger of a born rock star. Whatever problems the band had in the past, their combustible chemistry remains a powerful asset when they can be bothered to all get on the same page, and perhaps they've been humbled enough to learn how to co-exist, each realizing that from a musical standpoint they all wasted the better part of two full decades. Anyway, time will tell, but in the meantime I'm really enjoying listening to this album, which isn't without some problems. In direct contrast to prior DLR albums, this one runs a little long, and on the whole the songwriting is solid but not quite at a classic level, though they play the hell out of every song here, including the poorly chosen first single "Tattoo," which I hated at first but now grudgingly tolerate and maybe even like (its big riffs, anyway). Apparently, about half of these songs are reworked demos from the seventies, and indeed some songs here are overly reminiscent of others, "She's The Woman" and "Stay Frosty" recalling "I'm The One" and "Ice Cream Man," for example. These are still good songs, however, and when I asked my friend Danny (whose opinions I greatly respect and who is an even bigger Van Halen fan than me) what his five favorite songs from the album were, his picks were very different than mine, which is the sign of a good album that can be played from start to finish. For the record, the songs I'm most partial to at the moment are "China Town," mostly because Eddie is jaw-droppingly incredible on it, "Blood and Fire," a catchy survivor's tale that should eventually see a single release, "As Is," on which I love the fast-paced groove and solos, "The Trouble With Never," which has another melodic chorus and powerful solo not to mention a prototypical deep voiced talk singing section from Dave, and "Big River," which they could've called "Big Chorus." Then again, this is an album whose highlights don't necessarily jump out at you, but which gets better and better the more you get to know it. The earlier album it probably most reminds me of is Woman and Children First in that it features great heavy playing throughout even though overall it's not their best batch of tunes. Still, this album is way better than I thought it would be, and I gotta give Diamond Dave his due, because for all his egocentric faults, this album again proves that his presence brings out the best in Eddie Van Halen.
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