|Photo by: Amazon|
Key tracks: "Bullethead," "Big River," "Beats Workin'"
At some point, nostalgia grabs most successful bands by the throat. Sometimes they simply pay tribute to their influences, sometimes they join the never-ending oldies touring circuit, but it almost invariably involves reuniting with former members, giving fans a reason to talk about them again. "Look! Their old guitar player is back! The one who wrote all their old hits! Now they can stop sucking and put out great material again!"
In reality, however, this is usually the kiss of death for the band's creativity. The very desire to inject old blood back into the group more or less guarantees that no more new ground will be broken. Van Halen is one of the latest acts to give in, having recently joined forces again with none other than their original lead singer/lyricist/male chauvinist David Lee Roth in order to prove that they are still running with the devil after all these years.
A Different Kind of Truth, their first album in 28 years with Roth at the microphone, keeps any more trails off the beaten glammy rock path to a minimum. In fact, it is almost literally living in the past, as most of the songs are leftovers from the group's initial Hollywood club days. No "Jump"-like synthesizer pop to be found here: the band goes all in to evoke memories of their 1978 eponymous debut album. 13 hard rock numbers, each one with the tapping, thrashing, and electric fireworks the band has downplayed since they became MTV mainstays with Sammy Hagar.
At least, this is how the album can be formally described. Upon closer inspection, issues arise from under its flashy guitar gloss. As much as it may disappoint Van Halen stalwarts, David Lee Roth really should have stayed away from the group at this point in his career. He may have created the band's salacious charisma in their younger days, but he is now the sole factor giving away the band's age with his, er, "mature" vocalizations. He strains himself, forcing out screams and rasping like a pension recipient as he unsuccessfully tries to prove that this band still has balls.
Worst of all, his atrocious lyrics go beyond self-parody and into face-palm territory. Diamond Dave used to be a slightly tipsy street-talking skirt-chaser with his hilarious double entendres, but has now degenerated into a sixth-grade class clown. Take the lead single, "Tattoo," for instance: if lines like "Sexy dragon magic / So very autobiographic" bring to mind any descriptions other than "laughable" or "a mockery," please refer to his past lyrical triumphs of "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love" or "Panama." His showcase "Stay Frosty" reflects pretty much everything he does wrong here, sounding more like an awful Wendy's commercial jingle rather than jargon-laden "been around the block" advice.
Other, less cringe-worthy flaws hold A Different Kind of Truth back from being the return to form it trumpets itself to be. For all the effort put into sounding like they are straight off the streets, the song structures are convoluted and calculated, throwing in pointless bridges and breakdowns. Weak attempts at a "raw" feel like keeping in song countoffs and shouting directions at the sound engineer sound ridiculous, given the compressed polished-for-radio production. The rare grasps at experimentation seem unnatural rather than refreshing, such as the radar squeaks in the intro to "Honeybabysweetiedoll."
Now this review could just stop here, slap a 2 or 3 on the album, and call it an embarrassing washed-up lunge for publicity, if not for the one man who saves it: Eddie Van Halen. His guitar wails, screams, and gives the whole experience a jaw-dropping credibility not seen since the band first fooled around with synths. Impressive riffs flow freely from his fingertips and create an authentically Van Halen sound in tandem with brother Alex's drums. "Bullethead" would have fit perfectly on their debut record, with Roth on form and a quick-and-dirty punk feel. Granted, with all the old outtakes put to use here, they could hardly have gone wrong, but kudos to them for making a reunion album sound relevant.
Like every oldies band trying to find the spark again, it overkills in spots, but A Different Kind of Truth gets by on terrific riff power. Its quality isn't far short of a miracle, given their 14-year gap in recording since the creative crash of Van Halen III. While they may noticeably stumble with David Lee Roth back at the wheel, just be sure to listen to the album without a lyrics sheet at hand and witness Van Halen on fire once again.
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