Skyscraper

Just Listening to…David Lee Roth – Skyscraper

Just Listening to…David Lee Roth – Skyscraper

This is the first Just Listening post for an album I’ve already reviewed in full.  I tackled David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper back in 2013, rating it 4/5 stars.  However a recent conversation with singer/songwriter Derek Kortepeter led me to try to listen with new ears.

It started with Derek’s message to me.  “Unpopular opinion:  Skyscraper is better than Eat ‘Em and Smile,” he said.  “Better songs, better guitar, tons of awesome synth…when you have tracks like ‘Perfect Timing’ and ‘Knucklebones’ how can you go wrong?”  Derek says “Perfect Timing” might be his favourite song on the album.

Derek definitely has some good points.  It’s easily arguable that Skyscraper has better guitars.  Steve Vai was in the co-producer’s chair, and he layered his guitar parts as if he was building one of his own solo albums.  They’re very dense, yet melodically intertwined.  As for the synth, he has a valid observation with some songs like “Skyscraper”.  That song verges on progressive rock; it’s got so much going on, including synth and layered Roth vocals.  However I think the synth was overdone on tracks like “Stand Up“, which doesn’t even have Billy Sheehan on bass.

Skyscraper is an almost absurd album in some respects, with Dave pouring on that “charasma” to the nth degree.  There are so many “woo’s” “wow’s” and “oh’s” that you could make an entire song of just that.  Steve Vai was the star on Skyscraper, and as I said in my original review, how much you like Skyscraper will depend on how much you like Steve Vai.  I like Steve; I think his music and playing is fascinating.  Rock fans often don’t want “fascinating”, they just want the riffs and the choruses.  Eat ‘Em and Smile was much more about the big guitars and choruses, but it’s also just a fabulous record.  Skyscraper is colder sounding by comparison, and often drifts into experimental pop rock excursions.  It also suffers for the lack of Billy Sheehan, who wasn’t given a lot of creative freedom.  Where there should be bass, often you will hear synth.

Sorry Derek, you have made some really great points, and Skyscraper really is a great album.  It’s brave and fun and experimental, but it’s also cold with little bit of filler (“Stand Up”).   I’ll always rate it high…but not as high as Eat ‘Em and Smile.

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!”