James LoMenzo

REVIEW: White Lion – The Best Of (1992)

WHITE LION – The Best Of (1992 Atlantic)

I’m going to keep it short and sweet this time, and defer to a 1992 review by M.E.A.T Magazine’s Drew Masters (issue 38, Nov. 92):

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He’s right.  I don’t agree with the single M rating though; these are mostly good tunes.  They’re sequenced awkwardly as fuck though.  The flow on this disc is just completely fucked.  The songs don’t work in the sequence they’re in.  And Drew is correct in inferring that many of White Lion’s prouder, heavier moments are missing.   Vito smokes on the live tracks, but Tramp can’t hit the notes.  Buy Pride, not this.

2/5 stars

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REVIEW: White Lion – Fight to Survive (1985)

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0001WHITE LION – Fight to Survive (1985 Music for Nations)

Growing up in the 1980’s, there were a lot of new bands coming out that we latched onto pretty quickly. White Lion was one. My buddy Bob probably liked them better than I did, but I was a fan too. Back in those days, I was the guy buying all the rock magazines, while he was starting out in college. I’d tell him all the latest rock news, what albums were coming out, and so on.

One afternoon we were chatting, and I had something pretty major to tell him. I had read a White Lion interview in Circus magazine, and it revealed something neither of us knew before: Pride was not the first White Lion album! They had done a previous, independent (and rare) record called Fight to Survive that we didn’t know existed. Even back then, Bob and I were collectors, so we sought that album with great vigor.

It took years for him to find it on cassette, and then several more for me to get it on CD. Now I have it, so let’s talk about it.

The opener is “Broken Heart”, which was re-recorded in ’91 for Mane Attraction. Perhaps this early version, sans keyboards, is the better of the two. Regardless, this had hit single written all over it even back then. The chorus kills and even though it has ballady verses, it also has enough balls to pump the fist in the air.  “Cherokee” is another one with a killer chorus.  The songwriting here isn’t perfect, or polished.  It has some clunky moments, but it definitely had something.  Unfortunately, the title track is a lame-o Van Halen rip off, trying to be something like “Mean Street” or something, but missing the mark.  The lyrics about shields and swords are out of place on an album with a song like “Broken Heart”.  Vito Bratta is ripping off Randy Rhoads rather than Eddie Van Halen on the solo, but he had really yet to evolve into the player he became.

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0002“Where Do We Run” picks up on one of the albums themes:  great choruses (and guitar solos)  that don’t have a great song around them.  However, “In the City” has nothing much of anything going for it: it’s a real flaccid side closer.  Side two’s opener “All the Fallen Men” is much better, sounding something like a Dokken single.  This song is a standout.  The rhythm section of James LoMenzo and Greg D’Angelo had already established a good groove together.  Mike Tramp’s lyrics are not profound (nor would they ever be) but he’s trying.

“All Burn in Hell” is one of those choruses without a song.  “Kid of 1000 Faces” is a song without a chorus.  “El Salvadore” opens with a really cool classical guitar/eletric guitar duo.  This at least has an original sound, or at least for 1985 it was.  And the song itself?  Another great chorus just begging for a good song, a memorable riff — anything!  White Lion were really good at writing song fragments.  Finally, the piano-based ballad “Road to Valhalla” is one of the cheesiest, unconvincing “serious” ballads I have ever heard in my life.  Mike Tramp’s flat vocals don’t help the matter much, but this song is so cookie-cutter that it sounds as if taken from a handbook called How to Re-Write “Home Sweet Home” in Three Simple Steps.

Fight To Survive has a couple great songs, and several brilliant fragments.  If they’d tightened it up and put out five as an EP, we’d be on to something.  Unfortunately, Fight To Survive is only worth:

2.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: White Lion – Mane Attraction (1991)

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WHITE LION – Mane Attraction (1991 Atlantic)

I was expecting a lot more out of Mane Attraction.  Most fans are of a mind that Big Game was not as good as Pride (to varying degrees) and the band seemed to agree with them.  In a guitar magazine interview, Bratta and Tramp proclaimed that they had toned it down on Big Game, and the next album would be much heavier, and more epic.

In many respects, that was true.  Mane Attraction has an 8-minute epic and two more songs clocking in at 7 minutes apiece.  There are heavy moments here that are equal to the heaviest on Fight to Survive.  Producer Richie Zito captured the heavier sounds with polish and clarity.  Where Mane Attraction stumbles is not on the heavy songs, it’s on the sappy, pathetic, limp, impotent ballads.  Side one has two in a row!

Things get off to a solid start.  “Lights and Thunder” is everything the band promised it would be.  This is the kind of uncompromising heavy rock that the band had been trying to do.  It has a trippy quality as it navigates different moods and sections.  It is quite probably the best song on the album.  Notably, Bratta’s style has become less fluttery and displays more balls.  “Leave Me Alone” too is adventurous, sort of a heavy metal funk hybrid.  It has a great heavy guitar groove, but Mike Tramp’s lyrics are absolute shit.  “Can’t touch this”?  Jesus Murphy.  It’s a shame because “Leave Me Alone” is pretty great musically.  You could headbang to it just fine; trust me, I know.

From Fight to Survive (the band’s indi debut) comes a re-recording of “Broken Heart”.  It is a commercial hard rocker, and it reminds me of early Europe.   New keyboard parts made it more pop and radio friendly, but it didn’t get the radio play the band needed.  Plenty of keyboards can also be heard on the other single, “Love Don’t Come Easy”.  Releasing a song this soft as the first single was commercial suicide; people were craving heavier sounds.  “Love Don’t Come Easy” (originally titled “There Comes A Time”) is a good song, but it did not make a strong first impression for a single.

On album, the band chose to chase this lukewarm single with a sappy ballad called “You’re All I Need”.

I know that she’s waiting,
For me to say forever,
I know that I sometimes,
Just don’t know how to tell her.
I want to hold and kiss her,
Give her my love,
Make her believe,
‘Cause she doesn’t know,
She doesn’t know.

Mnfnrhshitrmfn.

And then…wait for it…

Another ballad.

There is least some cool organ and bluesy guitar on “It’s Over”, but why the hell would you put so many soft songs in a row?  I’m sure back in the day the band were trying call this a blues, but that would be stretching the matter greatly.   “It’s Over” closes side one, and I need to go and get some air, because these stuffy ballads are making me feel ill.

FUCKING

Intermission

Alright, I’m back, I’ve cleared my head.  Side two begins with a bang; literally.  “Warsong” was written by Tramp and Bratta as a response to the record company asking them to write “another single”.  Musically, this is a fantastic song, propelled by Greg D’Angelo’s relentless beat.  It too exhibits multiple sections and a couple killer Bratta solos (the second drastically different from the first).  Where it loses once again is in the lyrical department.  I know Mike Tramp has written many songs condemning war, and I know that the Gulf War was going on when he wrote this.  What I took issue with was the line, “I know there’s nothing good in war, I know ’cause I’ve been there before.”  I don’t think it’s cool to say you’ve “been there before” unless you actually have.  I think it’s inappropriate.

“She’s Got Everything” is a cool groove.  The lyrics suck again, but that’s expected now.  My advice is just to sing your own lyrics over Mike Tramp’s.  For example, where Mike sings this:

“So we left the party, and drove to her place,
You could see excitement written on my face.
So she took me upstairs, laid me on her bed,
When she got undressed I just lost my head.”

Try singing this:

“Sheeba dabba dobby, n’ log in fireplace,
Soo loo ba dooby doo, pooping in the place.
Shooba dooba dabba, the man in the shed,
La dee da da dee da, eating loaf of bread.”

Better, right?

“Till Death Do Us Part” is a fucking wedding song, except nobody in the entire world ever used it as such.  It has a cool, atmospheric bass intro, but then it’s off to the honeymoon in downtown Shit City.  The only good thing is Bratta’s solo, the icing over a very rotten cake.

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It’s too late to save the ship from sinking now.  “Out With the Boys” is another stupid lyric, but at least framed in a good rock song.  Once again White Lion lay the groove on hard.  Then Vito Bratta takes a solo slot with “Blue Monday”.  This electric blues was written and recorded for Stevie Ray Vaughan who had recently died.  Too little too late, and rendered pointless by yet another ballad.  Mane Attraction closes on “Farewell to You”, and I say good luck, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, etc.

Mane Attraction is over an hour long.  If it had been 30-35 minutes long, like rock albums from a past era, this would have been a very different review.

2/5 stars

MANE_0005I’m doing an ear-cleanse now.  To Van Halen, not Van Hagar.

 

REVIEW: White Lion – Big Game (1989)

Before I get started on the review…

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BIG GAME_0001WHITE LION – Big Game (1989 Atlantic)

When Big Game was released in 1989, hard rock was arguably at its 80’s commercial peak.  In comparison to the two-million selling Pride, Big Game was a disappointment at the cash register.  I believe this was an herald of the changing winds of rock, that would fully arrive in 1991.  At the time, it was more considered a sign that Big Game was weaker than Pride.  I don’t think that was the case.  Big Game remains today as enjoyable as Pride is, with plenty of great tunes to spare.

Pride‘s main weakness was its lyrics. Mike Tramp improved enough as a lyricist on Big Game that the words are no longer really an issue. He’s no Bob Dylan, but a lot of the immaturity has gone. An example is the first single “Little Fighter”. My best friend Bob assumed the song was a rallying cry about a person.  Tramp actually wrote it about the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which was sunk by France in 1985.  To his credit, Tramp figured out how to bring his politics to hard rock music without making it obvious to those who just want to rock out.

On the other hand, the lyrics to “Broken Home” are awkward and blunt, killing my enjoyment of the album at that moment.  While nobody in their right mind supports child abuse, the stark lyrics are simply not appropriate for a hard rock album like Big Game.  It’s impossible to sing along, impossible to ignore.  Right in the middle of Side One of the album, its momentum crashes and its not because of the music.

Fortunately, musically Big Game has more of that White Lion rock and roll that propelled them to stardom in 1987.  Anthemic rockers, lighter-ready ballads, and brilliant fluttery solos by Vito Bratta are in abundance.  Big Game doesn’t sound as dark as Pride, but it is also less heavy overall.  That said, “If My Mind Is Evil” is one of White Lion’s heaviest tunes.

Highlights:

The brilliant opener “Going Home Tonight”, an irresistible hard rocker.  The bright single “Little Fighter”.  “Living On the Edge”, a fun anthem not at all like the Aerosmith song.  “Don’t Say It’s Over”, a melancholy mid-tempo song that Bon Jovi would have given his left nut to write.  The stunning closer, “Cry For Freedom”, which is lyrically blunt but not as depressing as “Broken Home”.

I even like the Golden Earring cover, “Radar Love”.  The original is a radio classic of course, but White Lion did a pretty decent cover version thanks to Vito’s sublime guitar.  I thought the music video was pretty cool too.  Anything with a car chase, right? Thank God Mike Tramp is wearing jeans in this one. How many people did he scare away with his ridiculous pants (and dancing) in the “Little Fighter” video?

Since the album was considered a bit of a failure in some quarters, White Lion tried to change things up for the next album, Mane Attraction. That too failed to drum up sales, and after some lineup changes, they quickly disbanded.  Look for my Mane Attraction review in a matter of days.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: White Lion – Pride (1987)

Enjoy this first of two White Lion reviews. Stay tuned for the second in a couple days!

PRIDE_0001WHITE LION – Pride (1987 Atlantic)

I’ve had some fierce arguments with some rock fans about this album.  Regardless of its flaws, I steadfastly defend it and especially the talents of one Vito Bratta, the best guitarist to never become a guitar hero.  After the breakup of White Lion in 1991, Bratta retreated from public life and music completely.  Some have argued to me, “If he was such a talent, he’d still be around.”  Such talk is ignorant of the facts.  Bratta spent many years as a caregiver to ill parents, and whatever decisions he made have to be respected.

I mentioned that this album is flawed, so I’m going to get that part out of the way first.  There are two things about this album that suck.  One is the production, by the normally awesome Michael Wagener (engineered by Canadian “Gggarth” Richardson).  It’s really muddy, echoey, and annoying.  It is indicative of the times.

The second thing that drives me nuts are the lyrics.  I know Mike Tramp is Danish and English is his second language, but there were three guys from New York (Staten Island and Brooklyn) in the band that could have helped.  As Exhibit A, I present you “Lady of the Valley”:

Lady of the valley
Can you hear me cry
In the stillness of the night
I have lost my brother
In the fights of the war
And my heart has broken down

I always stumble over that “In the fights of the war” line.  That’s one of the “serious” songs, something that White Lion tackled frequently (improving over the years).  For their flaws I’ll at least respect Mike Tramp’s willingness to present a personal point of view on specific issues (“Little Fighter”, “Cry For Freedom”, “Warsong”, “El Salvador”).  Unfortunately Pride is loaded with songs about young girls and what Mike Tramp would like to do with them.  Below, Exhibit B:

Keep your engine running high
When you take my love inside
But hold the trigger on my loaded gun (“Hungry”)

Little miss Dee’s got a dirty mind
All around the boys she’s one of a kind
If you wanna good time you can take her home
Cause everyone knows she is good in bed (“Sweet Little Loving”)

I’ll stop there.

Musically, and performance-wise, Pride is a joy to listen to.  What an untapped well of talent Vito Bratta is.  In the guitar magazines, he was noted for having captured some of the magic of Eddie Van Halen, and I agree with that.  Bratta has definitely mastered the Van Halen book of rock.  His riffs are much like Van Halen’s, with one guitar playing the rhythm and flicking in and out with tricky little licks.  It sounds difficult as hell.  “Hungry” is the most Van Halen-like.  The difference is that Bratta sounds like a much more schooled player.  Everything sounds meticulously planned and written.  When he takes a solo, it’s a combination of Van Halen and neoclassical discipline.  And every song is absolutely loaded with fills and tricks.  Pride is very busy guitar-wise, in a good way.

“Hungry” is a great song, a dark Dokken-esque opener.  Also similar to Dokken is the second track, the mid-tempo “Lonely Nights”.  It’s another strong track, and I find Mike Tramp’s raspy voice similar to Jon Bon Jovi’s from time to time.  Bratta executes a fluttery solo, and then it’s on to the next one, “Don’t Give Up”.  Again, I find the lyrics tedious.  I like positivity, but I don’t find, “Don’t give up, even when it’s tough,” to be very profound.  Thankfully this uptempo banger is another winner musically.  Once again I struggle to keep up with Bratta’s stunning fretwork.

“Lady of the Valley” is pretty impressive.  It’s the “epic” I suppose, 6 1/2 minutes in length.  The riff is choppy and smoking, and the rhythm section of James LoMenzo and Greg D’Angelo is spot-in.  Then Bratta gets his echoey acoustic guitar out and the song mutates.  An anthemic chorus tops a great song.

Side Two of the album was packed with singles:  the hits “Wait”, “Tell Me”, and “When the Chrildren Cry”.  “Wait” and “Tell Me” are both songs that Bon Jovi would have given their nuts to write.  Tramp’s raspy vocals are absolutely perfect, as was his blonde mane, and the girls went wild.  “When the Children Cry” was and still is an impressive acoustic performance.  Even in 1987 I was impressed that White Lion chose to forgo drums and backing instrumentation.  This simple, quiet song is the template for what Extreme would do three years later with “More Than Words”.  Bratta was a guitar player able to pull off such an arrangement without sacrificing integrity.

The album is rounded out by “All Join Our Hands” and “All You Need Is Rock N Roll”, two odes to the greatest music ever invented.  “All You Need Is Rock N Roll” is quite cool, beginning with what sounds like a drunken acoustic jam, and ending with with some killer bluesy playing from everyone.  Both songs are great.  I have always felt that the album tracks were as strong as the singles; like an album of 10 singles.

Shame about the sound and the lyrics, though.

 3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Zakk Wylde – Book of Shadows (reissue)

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ZAKK WYLDE – Book of Shadows (1996, 1999 Spitfire reissue with bonus tracks)

There are many albums in my collection that I have bought more than once, just because I love them so much. Kiss Alive for example I’ve owned on LP and CD every time its been reissued. Likewise, Book of Shadows. When this album was issued with the 3 bonus tracks on an extra CD, I made sure I added it to my collection, because this is such an amazing collection of songs and I needed more.

Book of Shadows, Zakk’s second album outside Ozzy (Pride And Glory being the first) was a departure. Every song is largely acoustic, and electric guitar is usually only heard distantly in the mix, or in some of the solos. Instead of shredding, this album is driven by Zakk’s soulful voice, electrifying lyrics (very underrated!) and songwriting excellence.

I recall playing this for Tom and T-Rev when I first picked it up.  Tom’s immediate first reaction was, “This sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish.” The reason for that is Zakk’s deep voice, and the fact that these are mostly mellow acoustic songs. However a few more minutes in, and it was clear that this was a Zakk album. Especially when that first electric guitar solo kicked in. By the time the albums ends on the electric, grinding, Sabbathy-outro to “I Thank You Child”, we had been thoroughly blown away.

Zakk’s lyrics run the gamut from philosophical to funny. “The Things You Do”, for example, seems to be about an ex-girlfriend and contains the lyric, “How do you do the things you do? You make Satan look like Christ, you know it’s true.” Elsewhere, “Way Beyond Empty” is a powerful, mournful song with a chorus so good that it will not let you go. I also enjoyed “Throwin’ It All Away” for its drama and orchestration.  The three bonus tracks are just as good as anything else on the album, particularly “The Color Green”, an indictment of modern greed.  Lyrically the bonus tracks are more topical than the album in general.  They are “Evil Ways”, “The Color Green”, and “Peddlers of Death”.  A vastly different re-recorded version of “Peddlers of Death” later appeared on Black Label Society’s debut album Sonic Brew.

If you are a Zakk fan, obviously this purchase is a must. If you’re not a Zakk fan but you happen to stumble upon this review, do what you can to hear it.  I’m firmly convinced that if Book of Shadows had a larger overall awareness, it could have been a hit album with multiple successful singles.

Band lineup:
Zakk Wylde – lead vocals, guitars, piano
Joe Vitale – drums, keyboards
James Lomenzo – bass

5/5 stars

REVIEW: David Lee Roth – Diamond Dave (2003)

DIAMOND DAVE_0001DAVID LEE ROTH – Diamond Dave (2003 Magna Carta)

One can indeed judge a book by its cover. David Lee Roth is hands-on with every aspect of his product, be it a photo shoot, a recording session, or an interview. He must have known his Diamond Dave album was crap, so he made a terrible cover to match it. Check out the tan, that wig and them pants!  (Also notice:  furry walls!)

This album, following up another aborted Van Halen reunion and the surprisingly powerful album DLR Band, switches gears and shows Dave’s “multi-faceted side”. Sure, we all know Dave likes disco, jazz, blues, showtunes, and standards.  It’s Dave doing what he did very successfully on Crazy From the Heat, and trying to do so again.  To make an album of this stuff would be fine, but Diamond Dave lacks any sort of zap.  At all.  It’s just one “who cares” cover after another, a couple crappy originals, and a Van Halen tune.

Dave’s voice just doesn’t generate the heat it once did, and all of Diamond Dave suffers for it.  The way Van Halen did A Different Kind of Truth used a lot of production on Dave.  Here, Roth is a whimper, a wheeze, a breathless gasp at the greatness that once was. To listen to this album in one sitting is an exersize in stamina. I know because I’ve done it.

Positives:  Instrumental moments on the Steve Miller cover “Shoo Bop”.  The ace rhythm section of LoMenzo and Luzier are complimented by a guitarist named Brian Young who is shit-hot on this.  Then Dave goes all dance-y on it…ugh.  “She’s Looking Good” is old-school and well done.

The indigestible:  The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen”.  Nobody needs to cover the Doors; Dave makes them sound like Smash Mouth.  Hendrix’ “If 6 Was 9” has too much of Dave’s boring talking voice, but not enough crooning.  His cover of the otherwise excellent Beatles number “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which he actually had the audicity to rename “That Beatles Tune”!?) sucks all the life and innovation out of a great song, as he wheezes to the finish line.    This is by far the worst song, even though he also covers “Let It All Hang Out”.

There is only one number here worth owning, which is his Las Vegas version of “Ice Cream Man”. He did this shortly after Your Filthy Little Mouth with Edgar Winter, Omar Hakim, Greg Phillinganes, and Nile Rodgers!  According to Dave’s autobiography Crazy From the Heat, this was recorded in a live in a video shoot.  The video was never released, but the audio was finally released.  It lives up to the hype if not the wait.

Decide what you are willing to pay for one or two songs, and buy accordingly.

1/5 stars