Saturday, March 27, 2004

30. Sammy Hagar - Marching To Mars (1997)

I’ve been waiting for something special to occasion my 30th review, and the news that Sammy Hagar and Van Halen are back together is very special indeed. In fact, check out the February archives for some quite detailed expressions of my feelings toward the band.

In honor of this long hoped-for development I dusted off my copy of Sammy’s first post-Van Halen solo album and gave it a spin. I was immediately struck by how much the songs have to say about his departure from the band. When the whole debacle went down I tended to side with the VH camp, but time has shown me that maybe Sammy’s side was closer to the truth (consider that VH have now run through three lead singers, two of them twice…they’re like your friend who keeps breaking up with boyfriends and at first you sympathize with her and then you start to realize that she’s more of the problem than she’ll ever admit). Looking at the album with that point of view it becomes that much more interesting.

The songs that may or may not be about VH range from pissed off to sadly resigned in tone. The bitter ones come first. Little White Lie opens the album with a blusey warning that your untruths will “come back to haunt you,” and seems pointed directly at the Van Halen brothers’ numerous post-Sammy interviews. The very next song, Salvation On Sand Hill, is quite cryptic but could be interepreted as a cautionary tale about getting involved with people who aren't out for your best interests.

The most cutting jab is a funky number called Would You Do It For Free. Again looking Eddie Van Halen straight in the eye, Sammy asks the title question: What’s more important you, money or music? For Eddie, who prides himself on being a musician rather than a rock star, it must have stung a bit. (But it begs the question, is Sammy donating all of his money from the upcoming reunion tour to charity?)

But the album isn't all bitter pills. Leaving the Warmth Of The Womb shows some genuine regret and sadness about the whole VH affair. Sammy asks "why doesn't love take you anywhere?" and they seem like the words of a man who feels betrayed by people he really cared for. Even the title seems to refer to the coldness of being solo after being in a hugely popular band.

Finally we have Both Sides Now, a soulful standout track that extols the virtues of empathy. Sammy claims to be able to see both sides of a story and there's a scent of forgiveness in the air. It showed, even back then, that maybe the door to a reunion was still slightly open.

The other songs on the album are more than servicable. There's a touching ode to Sammy's then-baby daughter (Kama) and the joyous title track. Other songs touch on drug-induced revelations and abortion. Overall, in the battle of who could put out a better post-Van Hagar album, Sammy won hands down.

In conclusion, let's return to Both Sides Now. The song contains several of Sammy's trademark metal dude nuggets of wisdom, and one of them goes like this: "love's an hourglass / it goes out wide and comes in close." As awkward as that is from a poetic standpoint, it's certainly applicable to this whole roller-coaster Van Hagar affair. I, for one, couldn't be happier that things are coming in close again.

Rating:B+
Fave Song: Both Sides Now

Monday, March 22, 2004

The Darkness - "I Believe In A Thing Called Love"

Listening to music is an obsessive thing. You might get really stuck on an album or an artist, but in my experience the most prevalent objects of obsession are songs. Isn’t your life littered with songs you just couldn’t get enough of, that you played incessantly and got stuck in your head for large portions of the day?

Like most obsessions it isn’t necessarily healthy, but it sure feels good.

No matter how advanced our methods of experiencing new music become, that obsession will always be one of the primal thrills of music consumption. Honestly, it doesn’t happen to me much anymore. Maybe I don’t listen to the radio enough, or I’m too jaded to open my heart and mind to new sounds.

The Darkness have changed that!

I Believe In A Thing Called Love is a big old slice of cheese from the U.K. Dressed up in Def Leppard- style guitar bombast and Queen-style vocal bombast, it brings back a time when metal and pop were still together and pop had a little more say in the relationship. I’m obsessed with this song. It gets stuck in my head, I listen to it three or four times in a row in one sitting, and it makes me want to play air guitar. I can’t take those things for granted.

I believe The Darkness will inspire quite a bit of dislike. Some won’t like the lead singer’s voice. Others will be deterred by the sparkly, too revealing bell-bottom singlet he favors. Still others will worry that it’s just a joke that’s going to eventually get old, that the lack of subtlety in the lyrics and the over-the-top theatrics just aren’t built for longevity. I must admit that this latter concern nags at me, and is the reason I still haven’t purchased the album (thanks to iTunes I could download this song and still respect myself in the morning).

But none of that really matters when you’re obsessed. You might be hanging out somewhere and see a hot girl and get obsessed with her, and you don’t have to know anything about her personality or family or friends. You can imagine all of that, the important part is the feeling she inspires, however brief.

Album: Permission To Land (2003)
Fave Moment: The breakdown at the end where the guitars drop out briefly, only to roar back to life.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

29. The Honeydogs - 10,000 Years (2004)

The summer before I moved to Minneapolis (or even knew I was going to) I listened to a lot of Janet Jackson and Prince. It didn't occur to me until later is that maybe the Minnesota origins of those artists was subconsciously influencing me to relocate.

Since the move, I've had an unerring devotion to music that's made in Minnesota. I have savored the music of The Jayhawks, Replacements, Semisonic, and especially Prince with a strong sense of civic pride. (It's sort of like the sports teams. I grew up in a city with no pro sports teams, so the fact that we have the Twins, Vikings, Wild, and Timberwolves right here in the city is wonderful.)

And though I've followed a few lesser-known local bands, I haven't given in to every single group. For example, Husker Du's brilliance still escapes me, and I only sort of like Bob Dylan and Soul Asylum. And before I listened to 10,000 Years, I would have lumped The Honeydogs in that same forgettable category.

I never cared much for the band. They seemed inoffensive enough, but had no hook for me. They were just your usual alt-country bar band with a half-catchy/half-annoying hit (I Miss You). Even after I saw them hanging out in the Electric Fetus (a local record store) parking lot after an in-store performance I was still uninterested. (Funny sidebar: It was a snowy night when I saw them, and all I heard of their conversation was the lead singer remarking "Drive safe!" to the others. How un-rock 'n' roll is that?!)

Fast forward to the present. When I heard that they'd somehow enlisted reclusive former-Jellyfish singer/drummer/songwriter Andy Sturmer to sing on their newest album, my interest was finally piqued. Then I read that in addition to that, Michael Penn also participates, and the whole affair was produced by John Fields, who brought such quality control to Mandy Moore's Coverage album. So I gave in.

10,000 Years is a concept album about war, religion, and people who are disillusioned with governement and society and life. (It's a shame that the topics couldn't be more timely, but I can overlook that.) The science fiction mumbo jumbo in the introduction in the liner notes indicates that the album takes place in a dystopian future.

If that concerns you, I completely understand. Ask Pete Townsend and Prince (or don't): Rock Operas only work if the songs have the ability to stand on their own. The best concept albums have little connections here and there, repeated lines or themes, but aren't slaves to the concept. Such is the case here.

Overall, this album just a big surprise. When you have little or no expectations it's easy to be surprised, but I'm guessing that the lyrical and musical growth represented here is a shock to even the band's biggest fans. Beyond the dense, image-filled lyrics are wonderful, memorable melodies. In fact, I defy you to listen to the title track and not be singing it for the rest of the day.

Any trace of a bland alt-country is completely gone from the band's sound. Though overall rooted in Beatley power-pop, there are tons of stylistic shifts throughout the record. Witness the jazzy jam-rock of Poor Little Sugar, the '20s swing of Were The Heavens Standing Blindly? (as effective an anti-war song as one might ask for), the '60s lounge pop of 23rd Chromosome, and the Sgt.Pepper/White Album mini-epic Last War Lullaby.

The last thing to love about this album is strictly personal for me and brings us full circle. It's undoubtedly a product of Minnesota, from the Powderhorn Park shout-out in Test Tube Kid to the mural that appears on the cover to the dedication to Senator Paul Wellstone. That an album as good as 10,000 Years was made here in the land of 10,000 lakes is something to be truly proud of.

Rating: A
Fave Song: 10,000 Years