Friday, December 25, 2009

Van Halen – Fair Warning

How criminally underappreciated is Fair Warning?!?!? Let’s face it, when most people talk about the brilliance of Van Halen, more times than not, all we hear is Van Halen I, a couple of nods towards II . . . man nod of approval for Diver Down or Women and Children First . . . but time and time again, when I mention Fair Warning, I get a blank stare as if the person has never heard the name of the album or I get some ambivalent and dismissive shrug. At least with the blank stare response, I can always whip out a copy of the album and educate to the sonic pleasure, musical diversity, and pleasantly surprising experience of this disc. The ambivalent shrug just irks me.

I don’t know all of the background history to the album, I don’t know what production techniques that producer Ted Templeton used, and I haven’t the foggiest notion what type of gear the boys are jammin’ with, but what I do know, I hear with my ears and I feel with my soul. Fair Warning has beastly brawn, sultry swagger, and a jazzy groove that takes me places that no other Van Halen, Roth or Hagar crooned, has taken me before or since. Eddie’s guitar playing should go without mention, but from one song to the next, I hear things that consistently surprise me. Michael Anthony plays with a soulful, damn funky groove that I had never picked up on before. Alex’s skin bashing is of its own legend, but on Fair Warning, he plays with as much animalistic fervor as he does swing. And, of course, you have David Lee Roth in his charismatic prime, completely enveloped in the role of lead man, coming across more as an X rated narrator than any singer I had ever heard. The four parts combine to create an album that exhibits the classic VH stomp and blatant lack of self respect for good health.

The two singles that come to mind from this album are the album opener “Mean Street” and the unbridled and gritty “Unchained.” Both songs are classic Van Halen in that they move with a massive and aggressive head of steam, but with a heavy element of fun that is lost in today’s heavy metal. When that oppressive opening riff of “Unchained” starts chugging from the left speaker, you can feel that something ominous is making its way into your life. The tight pocket playing of Michael Anthony in tandem with Alex is a key component to this song driving as hard as it does. Their individual approaches aren’t so much based on technique as they are on attitude, but that’s pretty much always been the M.O. to this band. When one mentions technical brilliance within the context of Van Halen, those references undoubtedly are aimed at Eddie’s playing. But I’d like to think that Eddie’s flash and pizzazz would be just that without the rock steady power of this rhythm section.

Of course, just as I make a statement like that, Van Halen challenges me to rethink these earlier ideas. “Push Comes to Shove” is a song that stunned me the first time I heard it because it was almost anti-Van Halen in its sound. Filled with jazzy guitar runs, funked out bass lines, a straight forward drum approach, and Roth’s raspy vocal styling, “Push Comes to Shove” suddenly made me stop mopping the floor and simply stare at the amazing flurry of sound emanating from my floor speakers. This heavy funk, jazzy fusion-y concoction was coming on directly after “Unchained?” Are you freaking kidding me?!?!? The only reason I can think that this song wasn’t talked about more was because in the early 80’s, Van Halen were expected to be a heavier type band, a guitar driven band, a rock band . . . everything that this song was not. But you know what? “Push Comes to Shove” is easily the most interesting piece of music that I’ve ever heard from this classic outfit. The guitar work alone is mystifying. Eddie, almost unconsciously, makes the shift from full on jazz fusion passages to palm muted metal riffagery to stratospheric guitar solo, encompassing so many different styles in the course of a brief four minute lapse of sanity. But again, Eddie’s incredible guitar work wouldn’t mean a thing by itself or over a piece of music that was half assed. The VH rhythm section doesn’t get the credit they deserve for driving a song, but here’s a new wrinkle for you. Check out Michael Anthony’s bass work throughout this track. His hands are flying all of the neck of his bass, creating wild sounds as if he were competing with Eddie for the spotlight. And DLR’s vocal performance is the epitome of cool. He simply conveys an emotion to this song that no other vocalist could, and part of that is probably due to the image that he’d creating of himself at this point in history. The whole damn thing works and “Push Comes to Shove” is the red headed step child in the Van Halen catalog, but for all the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, what has made Van Halen so good has been their ability to fuse the good times vibes into their musically solid sound. “Mean Street,” as heavy, hard rockin’, and technically proficient as it is still has a thick vein of sheer exuberance running through it. The same can be said about “Dirty Movies” or “Sinner’s Swing!” or “So This Is Love?” One doesn’t listen to these songs and think that the band are made up of a bunch of tough guys so much as it’s made up of beer swillin’ comedians who are more interested in chasing tail that bloodying knuckles. In particular, “Sinner’s Swing!” will get the toes tapping in time with the beat as we hear Roth hoot and holler in classic DLR fashion about finding a piece of ass and tappin’ it. With the backing vocals from the band, one can actually image the rest of the band standing on the sidelines cheering on their front man. Seriously . . . how can anyone feel menaced by a song as fun as this? It’s just good ole rock n’ roll.

In the 70’s and 80’s, Van Halen was the ultimate party band. This band influenced countless Los Angeles bands who tried to follow in their footsteps of debauchery and questionable taste. In doing so, they unexpectedly created an even worse hybrid of rock n’ roll. Hair Metal. But who wouldn’t want to emulate their heroes when one gets to hear such fabulous tales of getting gussied up in their finest duds and hitting the streets in search of legal (and illegal) intoxicants and hot broads? Fair Warning has become that Van Halen gem that transcends the rest of their catalog because every tune offers something new and exciting. Hard rockin’ metallic jams mixed with jazz fusion and funk rock . . . c’mon, are you kidding me? What’s not to like there? Where most of the pre-1984 Roth-era Van Halen leaves me craving a bit more musical creativity, Fair Warning is the disc that satisfies every need I could want. I’m usually left exhausted after listening to it because it’s so complete. It rocks on a primal level, it grooves with sexual vibrancy, it’s compelling from a heady, musical stand point, and most of all . . . its God damn fun! - Pope JTE

Buy here: Fair Warning

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