Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 46 - Van Halen

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

The means by which we listen is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated aspects of music. A song can utterly fail when ringing through miniscule earbuds, for example, but can suddenly strike a lode of new emotions when blasted through the speakers of your car. We speak of music as if it is something static, something that we can return to and find unchanged, but the reality is that music reshapes itself with each listen.

I mention this not to launch into a lengthy diatribe on fluctuating nature of the semantic content of music based on the experience and history of the listener (although, for those of you who plan ahead, that's very likely next week's discussion). Rather, I bring up this phenomenon this week because Van Halen is a band that deserves to be pumped out at a ridiculously loud volume, or otherwise not listened to at all.

A confession: my actual equipment for listening is pretty terrible. Most of my music comes out of my tiny laptop speakers (which tend to vibrate not-so-quietly against the case ever since I had to open it up and tinker around a few weeks ago). My twenty dollar Walmart stereo provides a slightly louder, if not fuller, listening experience. I do have an iPod I'll listen to walking between classes or to the grocery store, sacrificing aural quality for sheer convenience.

I listened to Van Halen using all of these methods, but it's not until I put the CD into my car for my morning commute that I was actually blown away.

They don't call it stadium rock for nothing. Confined to a laptop or an iPod, the music sounds like a grotesque parody, similar to a prepubescent boy trying to sing a bass part in a Wagnerian opera - the intentions are there, but the skill is lacking. But pumped up to a decent volume, Van Halen becomes a totally different experience, saviors from the land of rock sent to redeem me for my classical and mellow indie musical transgressions.

Most of you reading this are probably thinking, "Duh". This is a fair response. But I've been raised as part of the headphone generation, and did most of my listening to classical music, which seems much more intense and personal when being broadcast directly to your ear. So it's going to take some time for me to cope with the fact that music like Van Halen isn't just meant to be shared, it's meant to be shared loudly.

WEEK 46

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Van Halen

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I'd heard the classic "Jump" quite a few times, and knew Van Halen as one of the artists in the pantheon of hard rock. And I knew they had had a lukewarmly-received Guitar Hero game, though I can't claim I've ever played that iteration.

MY LISTENING: I listed to Van Halen (1978) every day this week, as well as 1984 (1984) four times. I listened to Van Halen II (1979) once, and I'm listening to 5150 (1986) as I write this.

WHAT I LIKED: If you hadn't gathered from the above paragraphs, when Van Halen rocks out, they rock out hard, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. What they lack in complexity and nuance, they make up for with sheer force of will. Their songs also have the kind of choruses that I love - a recurring line that you spend the whole song waiting for, just so that you can sing along. The rest of "Runnin' With The Devil" or "Panama" or "Janie's Crying" is suddenly rendered irrelevant by that that five second hook that suddenly becomes your entire world. It's strangely cathartic, at least for me, and I found a lot of otherwise subpar songs redeemed by this sort of chorus.

And also to reiterate what every music critic and rock fan has said in the history of ever, Eddie Van Halen is an amazing guitar player. Songs like "Eruption" border on the virtuosic, which I wasn't really expecting from this kind of band. And it's this sort of instrumental prowess that pulls up Van Halen from being just another proto-hair metal hard rock group. The music is conveyed with such force and vigor that it's surprising to find such complex craftsmanship behind what initially sounds like a very simple song. Van Halen's complex guitar playing stands in contrast to David Lee Roth's simple, powerful vocal lines, and the contrast between this complexity and simplicity provides depth where I wasn't really expecting it.

And no, I didn't listen to enough later Van Halen to weigh in on the David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar debate. But I did listen to 1984 and 5150, two albums were feature synthesizers pretty heavily. I can't pretend that this is good music (certainly not as pure "hard rock" as Van Halen's earlier stuff), but I have a soft spot for cheesy 80s synth lines, like the one in "I'll Wait" or "Dreams". In 2010, it sounds incredibly dated, but I could care less.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE:

As opposed to the indie rock and alternative hip-hop I've been listening to for the past two weeks, Van Halen is pretty appealing to a large number of people. At their best, this means that they create songs that are universally accepted as a great track to bang your head and rock out to. At their worst, it means ridiculously inane tracks like "Hot For Teacher". Tracks like this one are stupid...there's no other word to describe it. There's a fine line between the impressive, invigorating hard rock and the insipid, overly-kitschy hard rock, and I haven't quite found the line of demarcation yet. But I know it when I hear it.

I've spoken before about the limitations of this "gorge myself on an artist for a week" project, and the drawbacks also apply to hard rock like Van Halen. Listening to primarily Van Halen for seven days is akin to eating a 24-ounce steak for every meal for a week. It's nice and fulfilling every once in a while, but making it a habit quickly turns into excess.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's still a lot of CDs from the David Lee Roth era I haven't touched - like Women and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981) and Diver Down (1982) - which I'm expecting to be variations on a theme already perfected by the band's first eponymous album. I'm more interested in exploring more of the post-Roth era, like OU812 (1988) and the juvenilely-clever For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991). Apparently these later albums are considered less successful, but well-intentioned failures are also fun to explore, and a subpar hard rock album is still goes down easier than a subpar album from most other genres.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD:
"Dreams"
Admit it. You love synthesizers as much as I do.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD:
"Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love"

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Electric Light Orchestra