Thursday, 9 February 2012

REVIEW - A Different Kind of Truth - Van Halen

Just when you thought it was safe to reintegrate the M&Ms! Better than might have been reasonable to expect, and sure to make the fans happy.

ARTIST: Van Halen
ALBUM: A Different Kind Of Truth
RELEASED: February 2012

Tattoo/She's The Woman/You and Your Blues/China Town/Blood and Fire/
Bullethead/As Is/Honeybabysweetiedoll/The Trouble With Never/
Outta Space/Stay Frosty/Big River/Beats Workin'

Told ya I was comin' back...
Say ya missed me...
Say it like ya mean it!

If ever an album was all about the numbers it's A Different Kind Of Truth. It is, after all, the first Van Halen album in 14 years and the first Van Halen album with David Lee Roth in 28 years.

There's a group of music fans (and a fairly big group at that), for whom these facts are a BIG DEAL. The original Van Halen lineup were the definitive California party band of the late 70s and early/mid 80s, and despite their subsequent success with Sammy Hagar on vocals, there's not a Van Halen fan that hasn't imagined the return of David Lee Roth every day since 1985. Just look at the 10 million copies their last album together sold, or the public response to their first public appearance together in 11 years at the MTV music awards (in 1996, a ludicrous 16 years and one awful album with Gary Cherone before the reunion would finally bear fruit).

Believe me, David Lee Roth has worn far worse outfits than that.

Apart from anything else, it is exciting to find Eddie Van Halen's inimitable guitar (actually imitated by everyone and their dog since 1980) and Roth's over the top persona in the same place once more. It's a combination that gave the band a uniqueness and personality they could never recapture with Hagar, and it's almost surreal to hear them paired up again after so many years, and so many false starts.

And while it would be fair to suggest he may have lost a step or two over the years, Eddie sounds nothing like the sad, drunken mess he appeared to be for much of the last decade. That alone will make A Different Kind of Truth a winning proposition for some, and it's certainly a thrill to hear the man playing again. Likewise, it's a treat to hear Roth back at the top level after a fairly underwhelming two decades of diminishing solo returns. The voice is a little strained, an it's impossible to hide the fact that Roth is not a young man anymore, but there's enough of what once was to fire the memories of anyone who cares.

And the lyrics? They're ridiculous, but as a lyricist Roth has always had a talent for the stoopid (as in, dumb fun) where Hagar was too often guilty of the stupid (as in, this bullshit right here). Sure, by not inviting original bassist Michael Anthony back into the fold, they've lost the distinctive backing vocals that were arguably his biggest contribution to the band, but at the end of the day, this is still clearly and utterly a Van Halen album.

You and Your Blues

It doesn't entirely gel though. The songs are a mixed bag, both across the album and even within themselves. There's nothing truly awful, bar perhaps the cringe inducing chorus of opener Tattoo, but things don't always flow as well as they might. Sure, it sounds great at any given moment, but too many of the tracks fail to equal the sum of their parts, the transitions a little awkward, the writing apparently a little rusty.

Maybe this shouldn't be surprising however. For as many great moments as the classic Van Halen line-up had, they were never the greatest song writers. Excepting the odd true gem, much of their best material was carried by Roth's personality and Eddie's revolutionary playing – often slammed together, rather molded with any great craftsmanship. Both those pieces of the puzzle are in place, but time and context have drained some of the x factor. Tellingly too, a number of tracks have been built upon dusted off demos from the band's golden era. It's a connection with the past they're trying to recapture, but also evidence inspiration may have been thin on the ground.

(they must have spend dozens on this video - and yes, it doesn't synch up very well, does it?)

Another fly in the ointment is the production job undertaken by the band in conjunction with John Shanks. Where the classic Van Halen albums had a simple, spacious sound, A Different Kind of Truth has a thick, full, modern production that gives the whole affair a cluttered, busy feel and generic sheen. There seems to have been a desire to rock harder than ever, but Van Halen were always about more than the low-end rumble, and the net result sometimes sounds worryingly like Eddie Van Halen playing on a Godsmack record. It's hard to understand why a band so clearly set upon recapturing their glory days wouldn't have called on Ted Templeman, the producer of their classic Roth-era albums

Blood and Fire

Ultimately though, this is an enjoyable album, and the fans it is targeting will no doubt contentedly crank it to ten and marvel at the fact it even exists. It's far better than one might have expected, but it's also hard to imagine it being in heavy rotation three or four months from now when the thrill of the new has diminished.

Monday, 6 February 2012


ARTIST: Miles Davis
ALBUM: Bitches Brew
RELEASED: April 1970

Pharaoh's Dance/Bitches Brew

Spanish Key/John McLaughlin/Miles Runs The Voodoo Down/Sanctuary

I'm really not qualified to write about this album. I mean, I suppose you could argue that I haven't really been qualified to critique any of the albums I've covered thus far. I can't play bass like John Entwhistle. I can't write songs like Bruce Springsteen. Hell, I can't even sing as well as Johnny Thunders. But I can understand their albums. I know at least a little bit of what they're about, and I have some grasp of what makes them great. Bitches Brew, on the other hand, is a great album precisely because, when you get right down to it, I barely understand a damn thing that's going on.

If you're a heavy-duty jazz aficionado, you're probably rolling your eyes right now. This is a landmark album, worthy of an informed critique. But I came to Bitches Brew as a rock fan, and it is as a rock fan that I have listened to it, and learned to love it. All 94 minutes of it.

Miles Davis and John McLaughlin in 1985

It's not that I didn't enjoy jazz before this album, mind you. I regularly listened to Mingus and Coltrane's more accessible material. It's just that, while I enjoyed it, I never really delved a lot deeper. The idea of more experimental, boundary-pushing jazz never appealed in the slightest. However, read enough guitar magazines and the name John McLaughlin will start coming up again and again. A jazz guy mentioned in the same breath as Hendrix, McLaughlin sat on the edge of my consciousness for a long time. That one jazz guy a Van Halen fan might care to mention. Finally I decided I'd better pay attention, and I bought this, one of his most renowned performances on what I knew was one of Miles Davis' landmark albums.

And I hated it.

I mean, I could hear the talent. Helen Keller could have heard the talent when Miles Davis played. But I couldn't hear a hook or a groove, and certainly not a tune, that really captured me. Ostensibly a 'fusion' album, I couldn't hear what was being fused, or to what effect. It just sounded like a particularly unfocussed, noodling jazz album. I tried, and at times I could almost 'appreciate' it. But 'like' it? No. No matter how many chances I gave it. The album's reputation, it's amazing cover art, the musicians playing on it, all promised an almost mystical experience, but all I got from it was confused.

And then, quite by accident, it clicked.

I'd purchased a Miles Davis compilation – two discs I assumed would introduce me to some of the more palatable sounds that defined this earlier career. And they did, and I liked it. It was pleasant. Challenging, but with enough familiarity to its basic forms that I could relax into it. Often I listened to it at work to block out office noise, not really concentrating, just enjoying the the music. But one day, I was walking home, listening to the cool sounds of Miles, when I heard something new. A groove I hadn't really picked up on before, and tumbling after it was an intensity and darkness at odds with the rest of the material on the compilation. This was amazing.

This, of course, was Miles Runs the Voodoo Down, the penultimate track on Bitches Brew.

Miles Runs The Voodoo Down

And suddenly the album I'd left gathering dust unfolded before me. I still didn't understand all of it (still don't), but I began to feel like I was at least starting to hear it. McLaughlin's biting guitar, so different from the smooth muted tones of any jazz guitar I'd heard before, began to sound purposeful where once it had seemed random, cutting in and out, lending a real edge and almost psychedelic element to proceedings. Miles' runs and flourishes began to communicate something more than just virtuosity, and the rhythm section and electric pianos bubbled and boiled like the titular brew (at times as menacingly as the titular bitch). There are hints of something  spiritual and African in the sound that I'm not sure I can articulate. Perhaps it's the influence of the cover art, or perhaps the sound, more free and more primal than any other jazz I'd heard, and very nearly as mystical as I'd been expecting it would be.

Or maybe it's just that the musicianship was beyond anything I'd ever heard outside of a pure jazz setting? There's a t-shirt out there proclaiming “Miles ate rock-stars for breakfast”. Ridiculous on the one hand, but not without some merit on the other. There are going to be few, if any, instances on this blog where I discuss better musicians. There are few, if any, rock musicians who could walk so far beyond a standard I-IV-V progression without it all falling apart on them. Of course, that the cream of the jazz crop could outplay the jam bands of the day is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that they also manage to create something every bit as darkly psychedelic as any of those bands could. 

Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew was recorded in the same era Gram Parsons was chasing a sound he called Cosmic American Music, but, with all due respect to Parson's country-rock pedigree, there's not much that's more cosmic than hearing America's first art-form take a trip to Africa via Mars. There seems to have been a clear intent to create something new - to challenge an old audience, appeal to a new  one, and that push beyond the boundaries of a genre Davis had already been to the edge of. It isn't rock, or funk, but it isn't quite jazz either. Or, at least, not just jazz. Certainly, the music on Bitches Brew doesn't conjure an image of slick besuited jazzmen in a smokey basement speakeasy. In fact, not knowing any better, it would be hard to imagine what the players look like. Alien, maybe?

Of course, the album isn't all virtuosity. There's some trickery at work too. Parts of the album were pieced together in studio. Commonplace today, but less so in 1970. To purists it may have seemed like cheating that tracks were cut, spliced and tweaked, but I can't help but feeling like it is one more ingredient of the brew, a piece of a puzzle for the listener to figure out. At the very least, I like to imagine Miles in the studio saying “Fuck it, let's do that, they won't know what the hell we're doing”.

Dogfish Head's Bitches Brew
(if it is as complex as the album, you won't want four)

So I heard the genius at last. But did I hear a perfect album? Sometimes. When the moment is right, there's not much that can match it. For all its highbrow qualities, it basically kind of rocks. At other times though, it can still sound a little meandering. Miles Runs the Voodoo Down never fails to stop me in my tracks, but depending on my mood, the 20 minutes of Pharaoh's Dance or the 27 minutes of the title track can be transcendental or, well, 27 freakin' minutes long. Bitches Brew was not universally acclaimed by critics upon its release. It was called obscure, difficult, unfocussed. Even 'noise' by some purists. And I can understand why. It is all those things in a lot of ways.

But, for me, Bitches Brew is also an object lesson in how you don't always hear everything an album has to offer on the first listen, or even the hundredth. It gives lie to the myth a fair album review can always be pulled out of the hat in the week between a promo-copy arriving and the printing press firing up. Many came to realize this, and Bitches Brew is now considered a classic, although grudgingly by some I suspect. 

Regardless, its value for me is not so much in the music, great as it is, but in the lesson that sometimes you get the music, sometimes you've just got to sit back and let the music get you.

Next Edition: To hell and back in 28 minutes.