Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chickenfoot: The More Things Change...

About a year ago, when Van Halen announced a world tour that would -- for the first time since the early 80's -- include David Lee Roth and not Sammy Hagar or Gary Cherone on vocals, it was pretty clear that hell had frozen over yet again. The first over-frozen hell was The Eagles reuniting for 20 farewell tours, and of course seeing Pink Floyd -- David Gilmour and Roger Waters -- on one stage for Live 8 was a similar cooling.

The fallout from the post Sammy Hagar era of Van Halen was the band's long-time bassist, Michael Anthony, left along with Sammy Hagar and the two of them formed a band with the rest of Sammy's old (and new) bandmates called "The Other Ones." That project, to my knowledge, pretty much went nowhere.

Then out of the ether came news that Sammy and Michael joined up with a guy who plays guitar named Joe.

I believe I've mentioned my all-out respect for Joe Satriani in these pages before. If not, I'm remiss.

Joe Satriani is among the most incredible guitarists ever to walk this -- or any other -- planet. He's capable of eliciting and inciting more incredible noise from a six-string than anyone before him, and his way-out-there approach to making music on every level is pretty much indisputable. Put another way, the guy fucking wails. I've seen him live six or seven times throughout venues in NYC from opening to Stevie Ray Vaughan to packing the Beacon to Roseland to other similarly-sized houses.

So when I discovered he was joining with the aforementioned Sammy and Mike and drummer Chad Smith to form a new band called Chickenfoot, I scored a copy of their eponymous debut and I have some reactions, which is to be expected.

First and foremost, anyone who listens to this album is going to instantly compare Joe's work with Eddie Van Halen's. Both are, without question, incredibly talented and solid songwriters. The difference is that Eddie's style is distinct and tunnel-visioned. Basically, there's little chance you'll mistake Eddie Van Halen's playing with someone else's, much in the way you could never mistake Eri Clapton or Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix with some miscellaneous axe-slinger.

Joe's style isn't nearly as simple to discern because he's so adept at being all over the place and doing anything that strikes him as doable. The guy's style is eminently fluid and all over the place from song to song, but once he finds a mood, a tone and the aim of a song, he's dead on target. But he can just as easily do a sappy ballad with quasi-acoustic guitar parts to crushing the listener with tone and attack.

So when this collection of 11 tunes reached my iPod I was excited because I like Sammy both as a person and a vocalist, and I apotheosize Joe in every way one musician can another. I had a chance to meet and (sort of) play with him, and there's something quite humiliating knowing that if I spend every hour of the rest of my life dedicated to becoming a better player, I know I'll still never reach the edge of the mountain on which Joe stands at said mountain's peak.

Having said all that, the album -- musically -- cooks. There's really no better way to describe it. For the most part, the guitars are aggressive and loud and the songs are bold and in your face. Sammy's vocals are strong as per usual, and the overall expression of the album is a scowl, without a doubt.

There are some problems, however.

Inasmuch as I'd love to love this album, it's not going to withstand the test of time as a daily listen. Some of the tunes are really solid, but at issue is the questionable lyrics. Essentially, it's -- for better or worse -- the same thing that plagued Sammy's limited tenure as David Lee Roth's replacement. These tunes have some measure of humor but, for the most part, they fall a tad flat with lyrics that should be edgy and instead come across as quasi-generic. No one expects a modern band to write the next Stairway to Heaven or You Can't Always Get What You Want, etc., but a good chunk of these tunes are disposable, lyrically speaking. A lot of it sounds like "5150" -- which is both a compliment and a knock.

Examples of this are "My Kinda Girl," which feels like the Hagar-era Van Halen's version of Donna Summers' "She Works Hard For The Money" mixed with "Summer Nights" or "Dreams." Another Chickenfoot tune, "Oh Yeah," lyrically, is repetitive and leaves the listener thinking to him- or herself, "This song isn't over? Oh no."

Musically this album is tighter than a Bavarian bank vault. Joe's guitars and everything under that umbrella -- tone, the mix, the playing -- is spot on, as per usual. Most of the album, like the Van Halen stuff featuring Sammy, is solid, straightforward rock. There are a couple of limp tunes that can be categorized as "love" songs -- on this record, the aforementioned "My Kinda Girl" is closer to that than anything else, as well as "Learning to Fall" and "Future In The Past." These feel relatively akin to 5150's "Dreams," "Love Walks In" and "Summer Nights" or 0U812's "When It's Love" or "Feels So Good."

Make no mistake, the musicianship here is really tight and solid; it's somewhat akin to shopping for a Ferrari and coming home in a Vette. It's not quite what the doctor ordered.

There are some pretty stellar, noteworthy high points to this album. The disc's first two songs, "Avenida Revolution" and "Soap On A Rope" are both heavy on attitude and wham. "Sexy Little Thing" is a tad generic but a good, grooving tune. And finally, "Down The Drain" is a great Satriani-esque funk that would have been better without the sentiment of lyrics. Had these guys left that last one as an instrumental it would have likely been the best track on the album.

That, in a nutshell, is actually a good description for the entire disc. It's solid, but the lyrics -- not the vocals -- compromise these tunes rather than compliment them. I think Sammy's vocals are pretty much flawless, and pair well with Joe's multi-faceted attack.

Put another way, it's hard to listen to this stuff as a centerpiece for your attention; as background music, it's great. But front and center, it's difficult to not want to hit the track skip button.

An interesting addition to this album, the track "Runnin' Out," is clearly about the environment and conserving what we've got before it -- duh -- runs out. Problem is, the real concern after listening to this disc is that, lyrically speaking, these guys are running out of ideas.

Thankfully Joe's got plenty of packages of strings from which to choose. Let's hope he keeps on burning through them; as long as he does, I'll be listening.

As for this album, I give it a limited recommendation, so long as the listener expects mindless drivel paired with balls-to-the-wall tone and endless riffing. It's very much deja vu; it leaves you with a similar wind-down that Sammy's Van Halen stuff does, as well as pretty much everything he's done before or after. It's worth a listen and, with Joe's guitars driving this project, worth more than just one listen.

Pro or con, caveat emptor.


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