Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Van Halen- Fair Warning

When critics discuss Van Halen, they usually focus on their self-titled debut or the multi-platinum juggernaut of 1984. This makes a lot of sense, because those records sum up everything that was great about Van Halen. The riffs, the songs, and the attitude were perfectly in place. Both records established the myth that Van Halen was America’s greatest party band. However, one record nearly destroyed the band’s carefully constructed good-time image.

The early Van Halen records follow an arc. Van Halen I and II show a young, hungry rock band desperate for stardom. The songs are carefree, energetic and eager to please. On Women and Children First, Van Halen are legitimate rock stars, indulging in all the spoils. A year later, the stardom was beginning to take its toll. Fair Warning shows a band under considerable strain. It is not so much an album, but a war between two dominant personalities.

The tension between David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen has always been the force behind Van Halen. Their partnership follows an age-old rock n’ roll cliché: The extroverted showman and the guitarist with mystique. Roth and Eddie were able to keep the peace for three albums, but by Fair Warning they were jockeying for position.

Eddie’s intense solo in the beginning of “Mean Street,” sets the tone for the entire album. If “Eruption” was a cocky kid showing off his revolutionary style, then “Mean Street” is the mature musician who is confident in his ability. The solo is only a few bars, but the message is clear: “This is my band!”

Eddie’s guitar is the most dominant trait on Fair Warning. Roth attempts to rise above it with his usual chatty banter, but Eddie’s guitar chops him down to earth with a blast of distortion. Eddie’s guitar solos are still technically brilliant, but are much more focused. The signature hammer-ons, pull-offs and two hand tapping are structured so every note means something.

Eddie’s tougher guitar sound gives way to tougher songs. David Lee Roth tries hard to keep up his heavy metal lounge singer persona, but it seems transparent. “Dirty Movies” is the most obvious example of this. On an earlier record, this song would have been a joyous ode to adult entertainment. On Fair Warning, Diamond Dave is clearly getting sick of hotel room VCRs loaded with the finest in silicone based cinema.

Fair Warning’s greatest moment comes in the middle. If “Unchained” is not the best song Van Halen ever recorded, it is certainly the heaviest. It is the one moment on the album where Eddie and Dave come together. Eddie’s riff tries to subdue Dave, but Dave’s personality finally breaks through with a triumphant “ALLLLRIIIIGHT!” When Dave says that line, you can imagine him jumping off a drum riser. It is the most vivid moment of the Roth era.

Fair Warning is the lost album of the David Lee Roth era. It is an album of anger, resentment and weariness sandwiched between albums about pretty women and dancing in the street. Fair Warning gave us the real Van Halen, not the myth that we all wanted to see. This was Van Halen unchained.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Kevin DuBrow 1955-2007

Author's note: This blog was originally part of 411Mania's Year End Tributes. It can be found here:


hen Kevin DuBrow passed away on November 19th, the condescension was palpable. The elite music magazines and websites acknowledged DuBrow's death, but you could almost see the smirk on the writer's face as he was typing the obit. After all, Kevin was the lead singer for Quiet Riot, and Quiet Riot was a living, breathing Spinal Tap. It was as if they couldn't fathom why anyone would care.

Quiet Riot never had much credibility to the rock elite. They were never the heaviest band or the sleaziest band. Other bands had much cooler frontmen than the balding, cartoonish DuBrow. However, Kevin DuBrow and Quiet Riot deserve much more respect than they are given. Quiet Riot was the first metal band to hit number one on the Billboard charts, and their success paved the way for dozens of bands. Def Leppard, Metallica, Guns n' Roses and Pantera all owe Quiet Riot a debt of gratitude, because they cemented metal as a commercially viable genre. For many people, Metal Heath was their first exposure to the genre.

I saw Quiet Riot a few years ago at the Recher Theatre in Baltimore, MD. The club was half full, but DuBrow performed like he was onstage at Madison Square Garden. After the show, he stuck around and signed autographs for anyone that wanted one. He was grateful for every fan that came out to support him.

Kevin DuBrow never set out to be a serious rock musician. All he wanted to be was a rock star, and for a few fleeting years he was one of the biggest. He might not have made any "important" albums, but he certainly had a lot of fun. I think that is one thing that music has lost, and will never get back.

Rest in peace my friend.

-John Nagle

Monday, January 7, 2008

Top Seven of 2007 and Other Superlatives

Author's Note: This blog originally appeared as part of 411Mania's Year in Review feature. It can be found here:


Top Seven Albums of 2007:

1. The Wildhearts - The Wildhearts. Just when I think my love affair with hard rock has reached a plateau, a record like this pulls me back into the fold. Once again, Ginger has proven that he is the most underrated songwriter in all of hard rock. He keeps a delicate balance between pop melodies and heavy guitar riffing, never letting one outshine the other. He even adds a new layer to the classic sound by trading dueling guitar solos with guitarist CJ. Unfortunately this record has only been released in Europe and the UK, but it is worth every penny of the import price.

2. Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight. I was slightly disappointed when I found out that Jenny Lewis was going back to Rilo Kiley, but my disappointment was short-lived. There is an undercurrent of danger that runs throughout this record, especially on songs like "The Money Maker." Blake Sennett's guitar is soaked in sex, and Lewis has never sounded more seductive.

3. The Joneses- Keeping Up With the Joneses. The Joneses were victims of bad timing. Originally released in 1986, this record was too raw for the mainstream hair metal fan. If the album had been released a year later, it would have been huge. All the elements of great sleaze rock are in place: Great Stonesy riffs, simple songs, and truckloads of attitude. Their cover of "Crocodile Rock," is especially noteworthy, because it takes the innocence of the original and turns it on its head.

4. Bruce Springsteen - Magic. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard "Radio Nowhere" for the first time. Bruce's folk diversion was pleasant, but if I want to hear "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," I'll listen to Raffi. The striking thing about Magic is that it gets better with repeated listens. The first time I listened to the album all the way through, I remember thinking that "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" was contrived. However, with each listen I heard something new, and now it is my favorite song on the record. Once again, Bruce Springsteen has shown that he is one of music's most valuable songwriters.

5. Motion City Soundtrack - Even If It Kills Me. I want to make this perfectly clear: Even If It Kills Me is NOT an emo record. Yes, the music is fast-paced and poppy. Yes, all the songs deal with relationships in one form or another. Yes, the lead singer wears horn-rimmed glasses. So how is this album anything other than emo? The wittiness and complexity of Joshua Cain's lyrics place it firmly in the realm of power pop. Cain's lyrics often come close to being corny, but they are delivered with such sincerity that it is impossible to hate them. Don't we all want a girl who loves Cap'n Crunch and listens to the Ben Folds Five?

6. Bright Eyes - Cassadaga. I feel like Strong Sad when I listen to this album, but the richness of the music sucked me right in. The thing that sets Oberst apart from a million other indie singer songwriters is that he uses metaphors that nobody else uses. A soul singer in a session band? It's amazing nobody has thought of that before. The way he moves from country-ish sounds to complex orchestrations is also really impressive. Somehow Oberst has found a way to make music that sounds pretentious on paper, but doesn't sound pretentious at all.

7. Knugen Faller - Lugna Favoriter. This band is from Sweden, and they sing in Swedish. Therefore, I have no idea what they are talking about. According to their MySpace the album is "a three chord journey through the new right wing Sweden." All I know is that this band has written some of the best power pop this side of The Go-Go's. It's probably better that I don't know what they are talking about.

Honorable Mention: The Carbonas - The Carbonas, Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero, The Fratellis - Costello Music, Sebastian Bach - Angel Down, Down - Down III: Over the Under, Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather, Arctic Monkeys - Favorite Worst Nightmare, The White Stripes - Icky Thump, Arcade Fire - Neon Bible, Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger, Radiohead - In Rainbows

Most Annoying Album of the Year: Good Charlotte - Good Morning Revival. I don't think I've ever felt such visceral hatred for a record. The remarkable thing about Good Charlotte is not their music, but their ability to rip off whatever influence is popular at the time. Four years ago it was cool to namedrop The Cure, so the band went goth for The Chronicles of Life and Death. New wave has become popular again, so Good Charlotte has picked up a synthesizer. To be a great new wave band, you have to be stylish and glamorous. No matter how many parties they attend, or how many anorexic blond starlets Joel Madden dates, there is NOTHING glamorous about Good Charlotte. As the final cherry on the cake, Madden wrote lyrics decrying the vapid Hollywood scene with a straight face. Do you actually think dating Hilary Duff makes you any better Mr. Madden?

Biggest Music News of the Year: The Continuing Saga of Britney Spears or How to Lose Your Remaining Sex Appeal in 12 Months. I don't really have much to say, except this is the biggest trainwreck I have ever witnessed. I'm actually amazed that she is still alive, because I was kind of waiting for it to happen. This is shaping up to be one of the biggest Hollywood tragedies of all time. She has become the female version of 70's Elvis.

Favorite Concert of the Year: Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. I was lucky enough to see some great concerts this year, but Bruce Springsteen is the greatest show I have ever seen. It was not really a concert, but more like a pep rally and a revival meeting rolled into one. There was so much emotion in that room, and the emotion was not based on hype or pyrotechnics, but based on the power of the music. It's something that you have to experience to understand. I wish I could bottle up how I felt on that night and feel that way all the time.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Iggy and The Stooges - The Weirdness. I usually don't get my hopes for reunion albums, but the reunited Stooges' live performances set my hopes sky-high. I should have known better. The Weirdness tarnished The Stooges' perfect batting average forever. The most disheartening thing about it was Iggy's performance. He sleepwalks through every song, and the lyrics are inane and uninspired. The man who once proclaimed that he was a "street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm," reduced himself to "My idea of fun is killing everyone." Pathetic.

Biggest Surprise of the Year: Van Halen Reunites. I never thought I'd witness it in my lifetime. Money talks.

Best Breakthrough Artist of the Year: Amy Winehouse. How do you sell an artist that has no track record in the US? Exploit her addictions and personal problems for all they are worth. It worked like gangbusters, because Back to Black was the one record we all had to have in 2007. I want my $9.99 back please.

Comeback Artist of the Year: The Wildhearts. The Wildhearts did not make the headlines like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen or the Eagles did. They didn't top year end best lists like Rilo Kiley did. In fact, the only way you got word that they had a new album out is if you were a fan. However, I think The Wildhearts comeback is more noteworthy than the big three, simply because it wasn't a cash grab. These guys quietly went into the studio and arguably made the best record of their career. Cheers Ginger, you did well.