Looking at the albums and tours of the summer, there’s not much that interests me, I’m afraid. Spinal Tap releases a new album this coming Tuesday, which is not just the musical highlight of my summer but possibly of my decade. And beyond that…meh. Well, I mean, I’m stoked for The Beatles Rock Band. But in terms of bands that are still making new music, it’s a cruel, cruel summer.
But two projects did come out in the last two or three months that I was eagerly anticipating, and both were supergroups. Tinted Windows is a power-pop side project from Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, one of my all-time favorite bands, here writing and playing bass), with James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) on guitar, Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick) on drums, and Taylor Hanson (Hanson) on vocals. I thought, holy shit, how could that be anything but awesome?
Then I bought the album and got my answer: Taylor Hanson. This is not based on any lingering distaste for his family’s band, because I never really cared one way or the other. This is based on what he’s not getting done on this record. He sounds like he’s doing a fey impersonation of Billy Corgan all the way through, or pretending to be a tough guy when he’s not. He completely lacks any power or grit or interest in his voice — you’re bored hearing him, and while he’s good at the harmonies part of power-pop, he sucks at the power. The second single “Messing With My Head” is a perfect example of his inability to sing this material — he can’t hit the falsetto notes cleanly, let alone with oomph, and I can’t believe they actually issued this as a single. The drumming is awesome, and everybody else feels like they’re at least having fun, even if the songs do largely sound like tunes that weren’t good enough to make the last FoW album. All told I think there are two decent tracks, and I am sadly disappointed.
The other biggie is Chickenfoot — Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony (who, for some reason, actually signed away his rights as a member of Van Halen), RHCP drummer Chad Smith, and Joe Satriani on guitar. (Best nickname I’ve heard for the group so far: “Van Alien.”) I think Satch is a god, I think Mike is horribly underappreciated as a musician and backup singer, I have no problems with any funk drummer ever. And Sammy…well, I actually think he’s fantastic as a singer and a frontman grounded in the real world (not to mention his tequila is my favorite), but he’s pretty lousy as a songwriter. Sure enough, my cliche counter broke halfway through the first song. Almost everything Sammy sings, you’ve heard before in converation, or in another song, or as an ad slogan or something. From the single “Soap on a Rope”:
Got money, got fame
Fast cars and everything, yeah, whoo
I wanna dance, I gotta sing
Rock, soul, blues, sing anything to ya, hey
I got a woman, she fine too
Let me do anything that I wanna do, oh
Got it all, still want more
Come on, baby, show me what I’m lookin’ for
Part of me goes, okay, he’s just goofing off, right? It’s only rock and roll. It’s party rock, and there is absolutely nothing to apologize for if you set out to make a catchy rock record for the fun of it. He’s not trying to be Dylan (or worse, Radiohead); he knows he’s not being profound. Then I come across this quote on Blabbermouth.net:
“I write what comes to mind,” the singer says. “I’m not bound by anything subject-wise. I’m inspired by the music. When I heard the music Joe was going for, it made me reach, it made me stretch.”
Wait…you are trying? Check out the rest of the lyrics and see if you think he’s stretching or simply overextending a limited ability. (Remember — this is the guy who, when he got back together with Van Halen, wrote a song about getting back together with Van Halen.)
The musicianship on the album is wonderful. Satch plays like he’s having fun and kind of enjoying the opportunity to tell the world “You know, Eddie kind of went crazy, but I’m still a fantastic guitar player and I know what I’m doing — listen.” He’s wheedlie-deedlie and does all the tricks and then some, but remains super-musical all the way through. Mike has some trademark understated awesomeness; he’s used to playing in the pocket behind a superguitarist, but he still gets his trills in where they belong and actually serve the groove. Chad Smith is clearly having a blast.
And yet…I have forced myself to listen to the album a few times now and it once again comes down to the singer. Sammy’s great, but the brain-dead-yet-pretentious lyrics make me wonder what it would be like as an instrumental album. “Down the Drain” (sorry, that cliche came so fast I didn’t have a chance to warn you) starts with Sammy’s old trick of talking to the guitarist and ultimately mellows into (to borrow a criticism from Spinal Tap) retarded sexuality and bad poetry:
Oh, along came a wind like a-lightning
Strong enough to feel the heat
Felt like the night will wonder
With the wings flyin’ under my feet
But all that’s changed
My whole world’s been changin’
And it’s a low down, dirty shame
‘Cause it’s all down the drain
Oh, I need love first thing in the morning
I need love, baby, first thing in the evening
I need love, ow, first thing in the morning
I need love, love, love, yeah
What are you going to do? It’s Sammy Hagar. Believe it or not, he’s an incredibly healthy and vital 61 years old. He’s had 40 years of success being Sammy Hagar, and he’s not going to change how he writes at this point. Honestly, he doesn’t have to. But I still wish he could.
The takeaway on Chickenfoot is at least a little better than Tinted Windows. Taylor’s vocals make me cringe; Sammy’s vocals merely make me roll my eyes. Tinted Windows is out of balance; Chickenfoot is mostly harmless.
So I don’t know what I’ll be cranking this summer. I hear the Jonas Brothers are actually pretty good if you listen with an open mind.