As a music critic -- or should that be, "music critic?" -- I have access to plenty of new releases. I try to stay abreast of trends and styles, but there are but 24 hours in a day and I gotta have time for me, so I often listen to old stuff when I'm in the car.
This week has turned into an unintended classic Van Halen marathon. I had Fair Warning in the car since Friday and every note reminds me of where I was when I first got into that particular album. I originally got it for my birthday right before I went into the eighth grade. My grandparents gave it to me as a gift -- thanks, Beulah & Joe -- and the reason I asked for Fair Warning as opposed to the other three albums in the catalog at the time was because A) it was their newest LP and B) I knew there were no pictures of the band on Fair Warning's sleeve, so therefore my grandma wouldn't give me any shit about the band's hairdos or general appearance (although in retrospect, William Kurelek's creepy painting that served as its cover illustration wasn't much better).
However, despite its pop-metal brilliance, Fair Warning is less than 32 minutes long, so after listening to that and nothing else for four days, I needed a break. I made due with Van Halen II for a little while, but that wasn't cutting it, so I went out and bought Diver Down on CD. I had that on on cassette when it was a current album (still got the cassette... somewhere) but I haven't listened to it in at least 15 years; probably longer. Diver Down is a decent album, but it's padded with a bunch of covers and instrumentals. Even as a stupid 13- or 14-year-old, I knew that meant that Van Halen was treading water creatively. Hell, even the record sleeve is half-assed; but what few originals the band managed to throw together are fucking killer.
Frex: I skipped over the remake of "Where Have All the Good Times Gone" that opens the disc and went right into "Hang 'Em High," which smokes. After that comes "Cathedral," one of Eddie Van Halen's patented solo instrumentals, but this one is actually subtle, featuring EVH striking chords with the volume turned all the way down on his guitar and then turning it up, which produces a warm, haunting sound.
Following that brief interlude is "Secrets." I surprised myself by remembering all the lyrics, but what really freaked me out was how damned catchy the tune was (and still is). It's pure pop with gorgeous harmony vocals, well-crafted lyrics from Diamond David Lee Roth instead of his standard cliches and cat calls, an actual bridge and of course, a flashy guitar solo. It's a perfect little gem of a tune and it shows that had the band, or their label, or their management or whoever let them have an extra two months to work on Diver, it could have been a classic record and not just a placemarker in their career.
(In case you're wondering, I'm one of those purists who only likes Van Halen with David Lee Roth. Just like Joe Dirt. While Sammy Hagar is a more technically proficient vocalist, he has all the personality of a toilet plunger. Diamond Dave just sold it better than Hagar. End of discussion.)