Welcome back to the second installment of our Van Halen two-parter review. Last time we talked about the Can’t Stop Loving You singles. Today, we’ll be discussing the controversial Van Halen 3, with a special emphasis on this neat but overpriced collector’s tin.
Van Halen – 3 (collectors’ tin 1998)
In this day and age, bands always release different editions of albums, to jack up the price and hopefully also sell multiple versions to the same buyer. Today we get bonus tracks, entire bonus CDs, or a DVD to get us to pay a higher price. In 1998, at least with this Van Halen album, we got nothing of the sort. We got paper, plastic, and tin, but no extra content. It is bonus content that gets me to pay the higher price, normally. Throw on exclusive music and the collector in me salivates.
Before we get into all that, let’s talk about Van Halen 3, the album.
Fact: Van Halen shot themselves in the foot when they went through the whole Sammy-quit-now-Dave-is-back-no-he-isn’t thing. I remember watching the MTV Awards in 1996, and thinking that Dave being back in Van Halen was about the best thing that had ever happened. And then when I found out that Gary Cherone was lead singer? Hoping for the best, fearing for the worst.
I’d been following Cherone for years, and his touch on Extreme’s III Sides To Every Story was absolutely sublime. But even though both Extreme and Van Halen had a penchant for flashy solos and the odd ballad, it just didn’t seem like the right match. Cherone was a spiritual and political lyricist, nothing like the party animal of Hagar nor the ringmaster of Roth.
Van Halen 3 was as complex and mature as you could have hoped, which is fine, but it also sounds decidingly unlike the band Van Halen. And vocally, something is wrong. Listening to this album, Cherone is not singing in his old style. He’s shrieking, pushing his voice to the breaking point, and sounding unfortunately a lot like Sammy Hagar, confusing the fans even more. On top of that, when I played the album I noticed right away that something didn’t sound right with the band itself. Turns out, I was right — Michael Anthony only played on three tracks. The rest was all Eddie on bass and backing vocals.
Van Halen 3 (still don’t really get the name) is a semi-triumph for the band, in certain senses. It is long, mature, diverse, progressive, and paradoxically it is also similar to 1984, soundwise. It has a similar coldness…like a chill was in the room where you can hear Eddie’s amp humming away. “From Afar” is so spare and epic, one can only wonder what would have happened if it was on 1984. Elsewhere, Eddie’s warm synth has returned on tracks such as “Once”. The guitars have that warm-amp fuzz to them that you just can’t fake with pro-tools.
Yet it is only a semi-triumph. As much as I want to like this album, I have to admit, these don’t sound like finished songs. Aside from my “highlight” songs (below) a lot of the tunes sound like they’re only half finished. As if Van Halen were songwriting amatures, and this is an overindulgent and underplanned demo tape. Eddie’s guitarwork is great, as always, but much of the time it sounds like he’s just jamming with himself. While this is fantastic to listen to from a technique point of view, you’re not humming the riffs an hour later, like you can every time you listen to Fair Warning or even Unlawful.
My highlights (not including instrumentals):
“One I Want”
Other songs, like “Ballot or the Bullet” just barely hang together.
The album especially stumbles when Eddie takes his first lead vocal on the smoky barroom ballad “How Many Say I”. The song is no good and Eddie can’t sing lead.
The best song, and the most Van Halen-like, wasn’t even on the album. “That’s Why I Love You” appeared on early promos, and should have been the single, but was dropped by Warners in a monumental error of judgement. If it had appeared, and if it was the first single, the fate of this album would definitely have been different. Track it down. You’ll see what I mean.
The tin itself is nice. It has the Van Halen 3 cannonball guy printed on it, the VH “globe” logo printed on the back. Incidentally, the CD inside is unique. The regular retail edition did not have the checker pattern or the “circus” Van Halen logo. If you’re buying one of these used make sure you’re getting the correct CD with your tin. Also make sure it’s not scratched. It is stored in a paper sleeve prone to this.
Inside are a pick (a pink one?) with VH logo, a 3 sticker, and numerous pieces of slotted card paper with pictures on them Some pictures are of the band, and some with just a “3” theme. The band photos are pretty cool. It almost looks as if Van Halen were a real band at the time! Some of these paper cards have lyrics and liner notes too.
The slotted paper cards have instructions that you can assemble them in a number of unique ways. Never having done this before, I took this review as the opportunity to try it. Fun?? No, not really.
3/5 stars for the album
2/5 stars for the tin
I thought while we’re at it, let’s also take a look at the “Without You” promo CD single. It contains a 4:57 edit (album version is 6:28 so a significant edit version). It is mostly notable for its packaging: A clear red case, giant puffy 3 sticker stuck to it, and a Van Halen logo sticker in the upper right corner. The CD is designed to look like a 3″ single. Definitely worth tracking down for collectors who love unique looking discs.