On Second Thought
Van Halen - Diver Down






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Their two previous records had emerged from guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s alcoholic id—the underrated Women & Children First was ambulances and emergency wards and teeth meeting pavement, the overrated Fair Warning morning-after men’s-shelter murmurings. Both of these records had all-original compositions and sales were disappointing, so Diver Down (where pothead singer David Lee Roth took over) included five cover versions. With its additional fragments, sketches, and impenetrable arcana, Diver Down is like an ‘unofficial’ Fall release or Smiley Smile. To appease the guitarist, a detail of his famous adhesive-taped guitar was the cover art, and he got 3 instrumentals, if you count the “Little Guitars Intro” which is a “Spanish Fly” reject where the melody notes are inaudible due to being tapped instead of picked. Of the other two, “Intruder” is similar to “Negativland”, and “Cathedral” makes one wish that Eddie wouldn’t record these cool sounds as soon as he thinks of them but instead invent something else for them to do besides ascending triads/arpeggios (to be fair, he does a descending minor-scale exercise at the end of this one). Also, whatever is making it sound like that also makes an audible ‘whiff whiff’ wanking-through-corduroy effect, which I don’t like to hear at any time. Fast reverse cymbal hits are cool though. Any reverse sounds are cool but they're pretty hard to synchronize especially when Eddie’s doing a really hard job here with all those notes and is probably wandering off the beat a little here and there. Steve Vai did backward guitar on David Lee Roth’s “Damn Good” but it didn’t really impress anyone coming from him because he’s such a fucking showoff.

The original songs have the harshest stereo panning so by turning the right channel off you can take Eddie out of the mix entirely and hear what a bunch of drunks at a soundcheck are like. “Hang ‘Em High” (better than the Beasties’ “High Plains Drifter” if not the Lurkers’ “Go Ahead Punk Make My Day”) is mainly drawled Last Poets style, but the other songs suffer from David Lee Roth’s lack of confidence with original material compared to his way with a cover. “Secrets” is a Jimi Hendrix (“strong as the mountain, she’s as tall as the trees”) pastiche where the band’s role as a life-support system finds them at their most comfortable, and “Little Guitars” has Roth attempting Warren Oates in Alfredo Garcia but sings more like Kris Kristofferson instead. He does ‘sensitive’ as well as Roger Daltrey and the song itself is a collision between “Underture” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (which itself appeared on Van Halen’s live album.) “The Full Bug” is a nasty, parodic reprise of “Take Your Whiskey Home”, although the references to watching TV and the blatant-caricature blues drawlin’ are like ZZ Top’s more ZigZag moments. There’s a REALLY AWESOME bit where the guitar, bass and drums suddenly play the exact same thing together right in the middle of the solo with no warning—I love it when they do that! Even though it’s obviously a “see look we’re doing this live in the studio” ploy (they probably didn’t), it still sounds cool. Then there’s a harmonica solo! Roth is trying to be Vegas but since this is rock he gets away with not having to meticulously work out his vaudeville routines because while the audience may be stoned enough to figure out what’s going on, they’ll never be as stoned as he is, so he wins. Dolemite, motherfucker!

Of the covers, the most pointless was the leadoff track, the two next most pointless were released as singles, and the other two were fan flashpoints providing years of heated conflict that has yet to be resolved. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” wouldn’t even be funny to stoned people (of course, there’s the caveat I mentioned earlier, but I am VERY broadminded on this issue), also they already did a Kinks song on their first album. (“Alcohol” or “Dead End Street” would’ve seemed natural for them, though.) At least there’s the guitar solo—in this case, it’s drunken, slovenly contempt made audible. “Oh Pretty Woman” lacks Roy Orbison’s ‘death walks behind me’ catacombiness and “Dancing in the Streets” is just not as gay as the Bowie/Jagger version (also unlike the original it never accompanied actual riots where people had their houses burned down or died). Which leaves “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” and Dale Evans’ “Happy Trails”. “BBB” (written in 1927, prescribing interracial sex as a corrective to anti-social behavior [unless ‘Bill’ had brown skin too]) features Eddie’s dad on bass clarinet and is a bit like if Queen and Ry Cooder’s albums named Jazz were the same record. The accapella “Happy Trails” was probably designed for stoners to sing, and it does feature some amusing wavering cottonmouth-basso-profundo, but it’s too confusing, because Roth sings bass through the first two lines then switches to lead for the middle part. Too confusing for anybody but Van Halen, I should specify. Or did I already?



By: Dave Queen
Published on: 2005-01-04
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