11 January, 2012

Mousewife to momshell in the time it takes to get that new tattoo

is just one of the many bizarre lyrics we are subjected to now that David Lee Roth and Van Halen have released their first new song in many years. "Tattoo" isn't horrible, but the video is just...

It's disturbing. I'm not the world's biggest VH fan, but almost every part of the video felt familiar, like it was brought out of a time capsule, covered in mold and infested with larvae. Let us dissect, shall we?

The first bit of evidence that something is off is with that ghastly "Tattoo, tattoo" which opens the song. It's horrifying and worse, it's the song's chorus and sole hook. This is where Michael Anthony helped as a back-up vocalist. It would work if they held each note longer and maybe sung a little more. You wouldn't sing the words "dance the night away" like that, right?

DLR waving flags on stage was a very clever visual gimmick. However, it amounts to a 'look at me' which doesn't compare to an instrumental solo and doesn't translate to a screen. I think this and most of the other shots involving time reverse came from an early VH video, probably "Jump", but that's where the more knowledgeable fans come in.

The intro is good. DLR looks like he's giving orders to someone during the strobe effect, but it's a very creditable guitar intro and I honestly think they look good, in a weird way. The camera on a dolly works, but feels like it's trying too hard at the same time. Al is almost invisible during the entire video, but Wolfgang makes up for it.

As usual, the lyrics are barely intelligible and not worth the effort. DLR thinks we need to ponder the body of a man pushing 60 in a way that doesn't make us want to hurl. The bass sounds very good and (predictably) internet scuttlebutt says EVH played it himself.

They suddenly switch to Roth in a jacket doing something which makes no sense and isn't in synch with the vocals. While this is common on Youtube, half the fun is in seeing how far off the synch is. After a few seconds, it's clear this isn't that sort of video. But why? The guitar builds nicely though, since the vocals don't.

Shots dropped in of the band playing, and then we suddenly realize we've hit a chorus. Whoever edited the video actually got it right when we see DLR and EVH step together to start singing. Lip-synching in EVH's case, but they're trying really hard to look like they like each other. Like everything turned back and it was just after 1984 again. They're even hip by using words like "mousewife" and "momshell", portmanteaus popularized by a recent popular book. The only concession to age is that these aren't expressly teenage fantasies.

I've developed a theory that Roth lost his heart to EVH in a way he probably hasn't even come to terms with yet. This unique form of manlove ran directly opposite the lifestyle this archtype cock-rocker has otherwise embodied. In 1984, he got too full of himself and demoralized the band to the point that they couldn't work together. He left, expecting to take the world by storm. A few years later, his bubble had popped and he began to make noises about coming back, which wouldn't happen for several years yet.

When the '96 reunion happened, Roth fell too hard, misread things and screwed up as much as he could. He'd waited all this time, but the romance had stumbled. Further failures impeded this glorious moment but now it's here.

It's when the two of them are finishing the first run through "to get that new tattoo" that it looks like Roth's smile is more like desperation. Maybe he's had a ton of plastic surgery that's showing. It wouldn't be out of character, but considering what it must have taken to get EVH to this point, what must be going through his mind. The lyrics were awkward and slowed down the song's pace right when it should have speeded up.

It's also strange to realize that so far, nobody in the video is seen with a tattoo. This is finally remedied when father, son and holee Roth mime the multi-tracked chorus vocals. Someone elsewhere on the screen has something prominent and blurry, so there's that tat.

It's not just that so much of the video feels like a retread, it's that they're clearly no longer as good at it. Roth is no longer a gymnast. And he's wearing bell-bottoms. There was a hint of keyboards, but the song remains firmly in the guitar aspect of the band. Not surprising, it originated from 1978 and caught in multiple bootlegs as a song called "Down in Flames".

It's not that VH uses old unreleased material that causes some to complain (including myself, as we shall see) it's that he has always made the claim to be constantly writing new material. Many people, including Sammy Hagar, vouch for a dozen new albums worth of material sitting on the floor. That's fine for someone like Sammy Hagar, who can come up with something to finish a piece or join another piece to it, coming from roughly the same musical approach as EVH, basic kick-ass rock'n'roll. But otherwise, it's not clear what's there other than him pushing 'record' when he practices, and he practices a lot.

David Lee Roth has to run the show. Reportedly, he edited this video. Hence his return to form, a low-voiced spoken-word gibberish that is thankfully cut to half a verse before it's time to start heading back to the chorus as the guitar gets louder. Visually, the camera twists around for no reason except maybe to change angles. Suddenly things get right again for the strobe effect.

Then they try to stage a clip. The three of them turn around like they aren't ready yet and then start singing. They pass the chick with the tattoo in the background while Wolfy looks really into singing for a second, then turns his eyes to see if he's doing it right. And EVH isn't being serious either.

The transition into the chorus is genuinely effective this time. The music carried the spoken-word portion, which turned into an effective, proper Van Halen chorus, loud and boistrous, "Tat-Too, Tat-Too". You can almost headbang to that. Roth gets off a few shrieks like the old days and they start segueing into the bridge.

If there's a reason for this song to exist, this is it. The guitar solo that metalheads have been denied for so many years is only seconds away. The drums have been strangely muted the entire song, but so has the bass. It's a Van Halen song, people don't listen to VH for that.

This is the sort of material that the boys developed night after night, in between covers until they had enough original material that they could start looking for work in places where cover bands weren't hired. Roth was a great showman and right up through this song, gives it everything he has from the first step. He did the patter and came up with stuff to shout at the right place. Repeat a few times and call it a new song. Maybe Eddie throws in a new guitar solo.

That's what they did here, with the hip transplant guitarist not trying to jump any longer in the footage. And then...

Roth won't shut up. He isn't interested in serving the needs of the song, he has to insert his ugly tuneless voice for way longer than neccesary. Even the Sammy-esque "yeah" doesn't redeem it. Or he could have put his spoken-word bit here.

The guitar solo sounds good. Whoever's behind the camera doesn't have any idea what to do with it. Then we return to the strobe effect where suddenly the vocals are in synch. Roth reads from the teleprompter about his Uncle Danny's union tattoo and he wears the chapter number also. The first time I heard the song, I misunderstood and thought he was also referring to relatives in the Holocaust. Not so, but the relevance of this tattoo (other than to the "union" I think he means) creates a jarring juxtaposition to the tramp stamp the rest of the song is about.

Musically, the song continues. The video becomes strange as they start dropping balloons, presumably as a climax. So why is it still in black and white? Dave and Eddie share a close-up and suddenly Dave's eyes move fractionally off-camera, catch something, and move back as he gets angry. This is where the look of desperation comes from on the next shot, among the streamers.

The album is in the can, DLR has coaxed, nudged and dragged the VH brothers through the album sessions. Maybe there's even songs in there less than 30 years old. But this is as good as it's going to get. Not as good as in 2007, or 2000, or 1996, much less 1985.

The best parts of the video are the clips at the end, piled together in a heady mix of rockin' out and flags, balloons, confetti. There's another shot of Alex in reverse, which gives the drumming a weird effect. Then we're back to the strobe. We have no idea if DLR is discoursing on Western Civilization or attempting a take of a different verse, but he gives up and whirls away, leaving us with a very cool (if morbid) image to fade out on.

Many people spend a lifetime married to the wrong person. Fewer people (presumably) spend their lives waiting for someone. Not like this. It's like a tattoo, once you get one, it doesn't come off.

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