80’s rock

REVIEW: David Lee Roth – Skyscraper (1988)

 

DAVID LEE ROTH – Skyscraper (1988 Warner Bros.)

Changes were afoot in the land of Roth after the success of Eat ‘Em and Smile.  Keyboardist Brett Tuggle was hired in as a full-time member.  Steve Vai was promoted to the rank of co-producer for the next album.  Billy Sheehan was put on a leash, his busy bass stylings reduced to typical pop rock lines on much of the new material.  One song even had a programmed bass instead of the real thing.

It seemed like a sudden about-face.  David Lee Roth had left behind the Van Halen-nouveau trappings of the last album in exchange for a much slicker and more commercial sound. What resulted was Skyscraper, a synth-heavy odd duck that nevertheless spawned a massive hit single still getting radio play today. Revisiting it, this almost (only almost!)  sounds more like a Vai album than a Dave album. That’s not a bad thing, depending on how you feel about the 6 (soon to be 7) string master. Certainly, his loopy noodling was reaching an early peak here, but his stylings are not for everyone.

My biggest complaint would be the sidelining of Billy Sheehan.  I mean, you’ve got possibly the best bass player in the universe in your band:  Exploit that!  Don’t keep him playing 1/4 notes.  In a 1988 Hit Parader interview, Sheehan said that he had to leave the band in order to express himself.  He referred to the “note police” (Roth) who ordered him to play it simpler.  After Skyscraper, he was replaced by drummer Gregg Bissonnette’s brother Matt (no slouch).

The opening rocker “Knucklebones” is a great song, but falls a little limp.  Skyscraper‘s production is cold, sterile, and digital; like in that 80’s way before the technology had really come along.  It does boast complex guitar riffing mixed in with idiosyncratic Dave lyrics. Dave has acknowledged that Vai was in the driver’s seat for this album, and its complexity is a testament to that.

Elsewhere there are some progressive moments (the title track, “Hina”), stage-ready rockers (“Perfect Timing”, “Hot Dog and a Shake”), good time ballads (“Damn Good”) and whatever-the-hell (“Three Fools A Minute”). All of this is surrounded by a fun, party-like atmosphere courtesy of Dave as the band’s hoots n’ hollers along.

I consider this album to be a brave experiment, and Dave’s highest artistic achievement. Not his best album, but his most artistic.  While not as instantly likable, rocking, or consistent as Eat ‘Em And Smile, it is endlessly ambitious, layered, and most importantly fun. Dave is the ringmaster of the greatest party in town. Skyscraper is the party where the smart dudes stop in for a beer.

Craig Fee at 107.5 Dave FM, the world’s biggest Van Halen (not Van Hagar!) fan has this to say:

I still have a soft spot for “Just Like Paradise,” “Stand Up” (the more you do it the less you fall down!) and “Hot Dog & A Shake.”  With Steve Vai on lead guitar, this album is a killer follow-up to EEAS.

I’m glad I asked Craig for his comment because our song likes and dislikes on this album are almost opposite!  My faves?  “Skyscraper”, “Hina”, “Just Like Paradise”, “Knucklebones”  My filler: “Stand Up”!  So there ya go.  Maybe this record has something for everyone?

4/5 stars

“Promo only!  Not for sale!”

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REVIEW: Hot Leg – Red Light Fever (2009)

HOT LEG FRONT

HOT LEG – Red Light Fever (2009 Barbecue Rock Records)

It was a dark time for rock and roll.  The Darkness had split into two factions:  The Stone Gods, and Justin Hawkins’ Hot Leg.  The Gods were out of the gates with their album first in 2008, while Justin followed in 2009 with Red Light Fever.  Bizarrely, he credits himself as Justin “Dave” Hawkins in Hot Leg.

The Stone Gods made an excellent album, concentrating on rock and metal sounds.  Justin, on the other hand, has synthesized everything he does into one gestalt on Red Light Fever. There are still those cherished AC/DC-like moments that you may remember from Permission To Land (Hawkins even uses the lyric “permission to land” on one song) mixed with those operatic high vocals, taken to new levels of absurdity (“Chickens”). This is mixed with the polished Queen-like moments from the second Darkness album, One Way Ticket…, and the 80’s “keytar” sounds of his solo project British Whale. The result is, quite frankly, an album only Darkness fans will like.

I am a Darkness fan, and I do like it. The album kicks off with the aforementioned “Chickens”, which at first tricks you into thinking Hawkins has gone back to basics. Then the operatic chorus in full falsetto hits, and you realize that Hawkins is just as outrageous as ever.

“You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore”, the second track, reminds you that Hawkins is still one hell of a guitar player. Coming up right down the middle between Thin Lizzy and Brian May harmonies, it is Justin’s guitar work that keeps this band most anchored in rock.  The aptly titled “Trojan Guitar” is a cool workout, multi-faceted and complex.

By the time you get to the single, “Cocktails”, you will wonder just how Hawkins crammed so many notes into a word with just two syllables. Many will find this to be simply too much, like coffee with too much sweetener, or a cake with nothing but icing.  It’s a great song, with that Def Darkness vibe that I like so much, but the chorus is ridiculous!

“Gay in the 80s” is the most British Whale of the tracks, keytar up front and in your face, and Justin’s lyrics embracing the kitsch of that decade. Not a track for insecure rockers by any stretch.  Yet “Whichever Way You Wanna Give It” is the most reminiscent of early Darkness. It has that “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” vibe, with a chorus straight out of One Way Ticket…, and some solid guitar riffs with ample space between the power chords.

TAKE TAKE TAKEThe album ends a mere 35 minutes after it began, which some will find absolutely offensive after spending close to $30 (Canadian) on this import. However, if you wanted more, the band used to offer a vintage-Darkness sounding bonus track called “Take Take Take” on their website for free.  Unfortunately with the band now defunct, the song has been taken down.  Another free song, a bouncy upbeat number called “Heroes”, was available for a limited time only.

According to the inside notes, the album is to be filed under “Man-Rock”.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Bon Jovi – “Because We Can” (2013 Japanese single)

BWC

BON JOVI – “Because We Can” (2013 Island Records Japanese single)

There was a time I used to look forward to new releases by Bon Jovi.  It’s been a long time since I felt that way.  I thought the band bounced back (pun intended) with 2002’s Bounce, then they lost me immediately again with This Left Feels Right.  I don’t like to give up on bands that I used to feel strongly about, so I decided to check out Bon Jovi’s newest single, “Because We Can”.

I chose the Japanese single as it had one more track than the European.  I had not even heard the song yet.  It is written by Jon, Richie and songsmith Billy Falcon, produced by Jon and John Shanks.  (In other words, more of the same…)  The single came with a small 6-panel fold out poster and lyric booklet in English and Japanese.

The light glare completely erased Dave Bryan from this photo!

The light glare completely erased Dave Bryan from this photo!

Like many fans who have been hanging on long past Bon Jovi’s best before date, I found the song disappointing.  Rather than growing, it sounds like Bon Jovi are returning to the mainstream modern pop sounds of Have A Nice Day or even Lost Highway.  Bon Jovi’s never been the hardest rocking band, but they have written some great passionate rock songs in the past.  “Because We Can”, by title alone, should be in your face and proud of it.  Instead, it’s another faceless Pop Jovi song.  I’m going to write my own Pop Jovi song called “Who Says We Ain’t Strangers Tonight Because We Got It Goin’ On”.

I hate the chorus, it would be embarrassing to be caught singing this one.  There are some nice guitar licks flitting here and there, almost Brian May-like in sound, but barely audible.  Everything is buried under a thick blanket of backing vocals, plastic drums and electronic sounds.  You can barely make out Richie’s voice, and what passes for a guitar solo is really just a layered guitar melody.  At least the Japanese single comes with an instrumental version, which will allow you to hear Richie’s simple and sparing guitar.

The third and final track is a 7 minute live version of “Keep the Faith”, from 2010 in New Jersey.  Even this is slightly more laid back than the original 1992 version.  But at least it shows that Bon Jovi can write and play challenging material while keeping it accessible.   From the manic drum patterns to Richie’s smokin’ solo, this live version is everything that “Because We Can” should be.  Richie really shines on this track; I hope he comes back.  Bon Jovi without Richie ain’t Bon Jovi.

Based on this single, I won’t be buying the new album What About Now unless I find it cheap.

1.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Lee Aaron – Lee Aaron (1987 remastered)

LEE FRONT

LEE AARON – Lee Aaron (1987 Unidisc Music)

Lee Aaron: Canada’s “Metal Queen”. It is a name she will never live down despite the credible jazz career.  Try as she did to distance herself from the Metal Queen tag, Lee’s seems to embrace it more recently, even throwing a funky jazz-tinged version into her sets, as a mash-up with “Mysterious Ways” by U2!  And it works!

In the late 80’s, Lee (aka Karen) was less comfortable than today with being the Metal Queen, and her 1987 self-titled disc is possibly the best example of this.  All shades of metal were dropped; what was left is a mainstream pop rock record co-written with professionals such as Marc Ribler and Joe freakin’ Lynn Turner.

Growing up in Canada, you basically had two mainstream choices in female rock singers: Lita Ford, or Lee Aaron. That was all MuchMusic would play.  OK, sure the odd Joan Jett track too, after her resurgence with Up Your Alley.  That was it.  Otherwise the Pepsi Power Hour was pretty much devoid of regular female rock heroes.  There were the odd flashes in the pain — Vixen, Madame X — but Lee and Lita were the only two to get regular play year in year out.  Lee of course had the trump card labelled CanCon in her deck.

I got this album for Christmas 1987, and I was so disappointed. The sound — plastic, turgid, processed, synthetic, with hardly any guitars. The songs — commercial pop designed to get played on the radio and not a hint of metal to be found anywhere.  John Albini (now blonde all of a sudden?) is still her guitarist and co-writer, but there’s much less guitar on this album.  There are also some truly awful, awful songs on here, most notably “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. I won’t tell what that rains smells like, but it don’t smell good.

The single/ballad “Only Human” is a decent song, very soft, but not too far off from stuff the Scorpions would do later on!  (Lee actually sang backup vocals on “The Rhythm of Love” by the Scorps in ’88.)  The best track is actually the pop keyboard rocker, “Powerline”.  The guitar is not as dominant as the keyboards, but it does at least have some guitar.  It has Joe Lynn Turner’s melodic sensibilities and songcraft, hooks galore, and a smashing chorus.

But then you get tripe like “Goin’ Off the Deep End”, “Dream With Me”, and…ugh.  There was just no way, as a 15 year old, I was going to let anybody catch me listening to those songs.  People might have thought I’d stolen my sister’s Tiffany tapes or something.

Turns out that Lee, despite that powerful voice, just wasn’t cut out to be a Metal Queen. She’s doing great as a jazz singer, and I think that’s just fine.

1/5 stars