Wednesday, January 25, 2012
"Van Halen II" by Van Halen (1979)
View the Premise & Ground Rules for Revisiting Vinyl.
You're No Good, Dance the Night Away, and D.O.A.
Obvious Filler and Swings-and-Misses:The third track on an LP usually has to serve as anchor. Unfortunately, Somebody Get Me a Doctor doesn't even come close. Spanish Fly doesn't sound like a solo from one of the greatest guitarist of all time; it sounds like an etude played by a beginner classical guitar student. Bottoms Up! and Outta Love Again start out with a lot of potential, but never get the attention their bassline and guitar licks deserve and end up drifting off into bland obscurity. Light Up the Sky and Women in Love..... are just plain not good.
My Overall Rating of the Tracks Separately: Above Average (2.5/4 stars) - even when they stumble, they're still Van Halen.
The band sets the tone for their attempt to follow up a classic debut album with a sludgy, mid-tempo cover. When those instruments started climbing into the cab one by one on Runnin' with the Devil, you knew you were in for something monumental. You're No Good lets you know almost immediately that you're in for something that is only certain of one thing - it doesn't have the slightest clue what it is. It's a good version of the song, but it's a step in the opposite direction from everything the first Van Halen album was. And it is a potent omen.
But then, the boys hit you with something that makes you think you were all wrong. Dance the Night Away may be the definitive Van Halen song - it's got everything you ever loved about the band (not counting Sammy Hagar). The guitar solo is over-phased to the point of near-collapse. The backing vocals are the best vocals, reminding you that Michael Anthony is the "singer" of the band and Dave is the showman. Dave demonstrates such by being too busy wooing a naif to care what the vocals sound like. And Alex is banging away with flaming sticks on a set of double-bass drums that look like giant boobs (or so the back cover would lead me to believe). It's everything you love about Van Halen.
And it's all downhill from there. "Van Halen II" is handily the softest outing the band ever attempted. Much like Kiss' disco-driven "Dynasty" which came out three months later, Van Halen seemed to be dropping their heavy roots and trying to reach a broader, FM-radio audience. But it just doesn't work. That misstep is compounded by an absolute failure to strike the blues vs. metal balance they caught on the first album. On "Van Halen II," Eddie forgets that they are less like Deep Purple and much, much more like ZZ Top.
There is one exception. On D.O.A., the band slithers down into the gutter and wallows in the filth of that trashy punk-metal groove they own more than anybody except for maybe Guns 'N' Roses. Go listen to D.O.A. Hands down, it's the best track on the album. Unfortunately, it's terribly out of place in the context of everything else. And that seems to be the tale of "Van Halen II." Nothing matches up.
So, is it an album? No. Like I just said, nothing matches up. Slamming the gritty, heavy D.O.A in between an unimpressive classical instrumental and a song that sounds like it's chorus is sang by the cast of "Jesus Christ Superstar" just doesn't work. "Van Halen II" is an LP of clear identity crisis. Fortunately, they figured it out and got it right - it just didn't happen on these recordings.
Up next, we look at the other side of rock in the eighties with "The Unforgettable Fire" by U2.