5150 and Craft vs Crackle

As you might have noticed, Van Halen has been coming up in some recent listening.  That the pickup in my IPod use coincides with an apparent new album coming out is coincidence.  Indeed, a review of their new work simply makes one pine for times when they were still throwin the fastball.  As everybody who grew up in the 80s know of course is that Van Halen really was two distinct movements – the David Lee Roth chapter and the Sammy Hagar one – and while the former is more fondly remembered, the latter was perhaps a better crafted band, and the contrast between the two spawn interesting notions about music in general.

A lot of these questions came into my head as I put on the first Van Halen Sammy Hagar album, 5150, which stands up very nicely as arguably the band’s best album – and one of the most professional of rock albums generally.  What is interesting about the album is that – well, I am not sure how to put it, so let me back up.  Consider X, a punk band from Los Angeles whose record of the same name was touched on a while back in this section of the blogosphere.  Without pretentiously quoting myself, that review noted a certain endearing lack of polish.  There are some real good songs, and a couple that showed much more finesse than you’d think – but what drove the train was the passion and palpable energy.  They wanted to be something special, and it courses through the album.  There are flaws, and a lot noise – but the album works both in spite of it and because of it.  5150 on the other hand, certainly does not sound like it’s ripped out from anybody’s soul.  What we actually have here is 1980’s rock-pop craftsmanship of the highest order.  The album and its charms owe not the crackling firepower of the Sex Pistols, but more to the pristine production and meticulous perfection of Steely Dan.  There is not a bad track to be found, indeed consider a few of the songs that come after the midpoint of the record:

In a 1986 rock-pop sort of way, these are really well made songs.  Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, as noted previously was all time great – and for the derisive “Van Hagar” bleatings you get on internet forums and such, Sammy Hagar was a much more polished singer than David Lee Roth.  Also you have Michael Anthony not just providing bass but the layer of high backing vocals which make the Van Halen harmonizing among the most distinctive.  It is really how their harmony sounds that drives the “this is a Van Halen song” sentiment home.  Now what is interesting to ponder is whether this is sufficient?  Is this made with love sufficiently?  This is a stark contrast to more flawed but archetypally bad-ass rock and roll that we have grown up with.  But can just a bunch of great, well produced songs be valued too?  I am not sure the term “corporate rock” applies – but there is stuff like this or Steely Dan or Peter Frampton or – what we have is not the garage band kickassness, but the sense of pros doing really pro stuff.


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