Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SNR Playlist #5: Van Halen - Stay Frosty

I'm stealing the reins from Brother Anthony for this SNR Playlist. I've been a life long VH fan and I've been languishing with the rest while the boys squabbled about who's fronting the band. It seems like these days with three fourths of the band bearing the Van Halen name they've got enough clout to make Dave or whoever else is gonna be out front toe the line and voila! we get a new record and a tour (finally). 

Side note: Personally I'm of the opinion that it doesn't matter what bloated sack of ego is fronting the band, sooner or later he's going to shut his festering gob and we get to hear the greatest living guitar player and his brother (and son) work some magic.
I picked this track because I thought it was just a goofy throw away track when I heard the record for the first time.  Then doesn't the band go and pick it to be the second single for radio release. They always did have a terrible time with that. But the second or third time I heard it I realized I was starting to get excited and here's why.

It starts out with just acoustic guitar on an old time blues riff and Dave rambling on about philosophy. But once you know what's coming it goes from being stupid to being one of the best suspense builders I've heard in a while. Because you know that around the 1:10 mark The Family is going to come crashing in and just blow the doors off the thing.

Eddie Van Halen has always been one of the most particular guys about his guitar sound. The thing is, beyond some really pretty basic setup tricks, he's just making a little out of a lot with the way that he plays. there aren't fourteen layers of guitar there. I heard it from Ross Hogarth over on Pensado's Place that Eddie was using two heads and two cabs to get a big stereo sound, but that's it. The rest of it comes down to just having one of the most expressive right hands in the business and one other small trick.

Ed would tune his guitar to the chord. That's where you get an ax all in tune with a pedal or strobe tuner and then usually you knock the third a little flat so it sits better. That way he can play these huge major chords that usually sound awful with a ton of distortion (hence the root, fifth, octave power chord so dominant in heavy music, no third to weigh it down) and they just become steam rollers of huge rock goodness. Guys love it and even their girlfriends will listen to it which is one of the many reasons for their success over the years.

So now you've got Dave singing along with some background vocals which sound like they're also him. They're panned pretty far out which helps his vocal maintain its place once the rest of the band comes crashing in (props to young Wolfie for laying down a bass line worthy of his predecessor). The bluesy acoustic guitar sticks with us during the initial blast of electric guitar, drums and bass and then makes a couple reappearances when that same riff comes back around. Speaking of the back line, Alex's snare still has that classic sound that many try to duplicate.

Another of my favorite things about Eddie's playing is that there's no rhythm guitar line under the solos. It's just not something he's ever done and it makes the records sound more like what VH is, a great live band. Pantera was another band that did this, not so much on the albums but in live performances. They could have hired a player to get those rhythm lines in there but instead relied on the strength of the back section and the solo to carry the song through.

A few other tidbits that along with the acoustic guitar keep things interesting. Alex is just playing his sticks when the last verse comes around. Even if you can't remember the words you know the end of the song is coming because of that.

All in all it should be just a forgettable, silly song but I find myself listening to it over and over again because of all the attention to detail that's put into it. Not to sound all starry eyed over it but I'm not sure anyone else could have pulled off a number like this. Let it be a lesson to you Brethren of the Knob and Fader, not everything is what it seems. Careful planning and execution can make a great number out of the oddest stuff.

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