If asked to write a list of bands that have been formatively important to me over my lifetime, I would probably not immediately name Van Halen. But in thinking about it this week, I’ve realized they really do deserve a mention.
If you didn’t live through the early ‘80s, it’ll be impossible to explain why Van Halen was such a huge band. I’m not a guitar player, but even I could tell, listening to Eddie Van Halen play, that there was something new happening. My bet is that my first Eddie Van Halen guitar solo resided within Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit “Beat It,” a song that took the world by storm. I was all of eight years old when “Beat It” hit (and all of nine when Weird Al’s glorious parody, “Eat It,” cemented my love for it), so perhaps my critical faculties were not as developed as they became later. (Hush, all of you.) But I thought it was great.
I was ten when 1984 dropped, and Eddie started playing keyboards. I think I’d already gravitated toward the piano/keys as my instrument of choice, but if I hadn’t, “Jump” certainly would have made that an easier decision. “Jump” is one of the greatest stupid songs ever written, marshalling an iconic synth part in service of a universal truth: you might as well jump. Go ahead and jump. I think I was a few years older when I finally heard the whole record, but I cannot separate “Jump” from my memories of being a ten-year-old already in love with music.
I remember hearing “The Best of Both Worlds” on the radio when I was 12. I vividly remember the videos for the singles off of OU812, a title I probably didn’t get at the time, and I think that was my first new Van Halen record. I started making my own money at 15 and soon had the band’s entire catalog on cassette. And from there I stuck with them, long after most people gave up on them. I never minded Van Hagar, though the David Lee Roth years are, of course, the better ones. I even enjoyed Van Halen III, the one with Gary Cherone. I was 24 when that one came out, so I no longer had the excuse of youth.
For most of my life Van Halen has been one of those bands that won’t let me go. My sister used “Love Walks In” as her entrance song at her wedding, for instance. And now I find myself thinking about them again and revisiting parts of their oeuvre for the first time in a while, thanks to Greg Kurstin and Inara George. Together the two of them are known as The Bird and the Bee, and they marry George’s lush voice with Kurstin’s electronic production to create something of an updated lounge-pop sound.
With this sound fully intact, The Bird and the Bee has just released a full-album tribute to Van Halen. And it’s one of my favorite records of 2019.
In some ways, we could have seen this coming. The first Bird and the Bee song I heard was their single “Diamond Dave,” an ode to none other than David Lee Roth himself. It came out in 2009, shortly after Roth rejoined Van Halen for what turned out to be a brief time, and includes lyrics like this: “When you left the band I couldn’t understand it, but I’ve forgiven you now that you’ve recommitted.” Charming isn’t even the word for this song. It’s a delight, and much of what Kurstin and George have released since is similarly delightful.
In other ways, though, this new album is a complete shock. It’s the second volume of their cheekily titled Interpreting the Masters series (the first was dedicated to Hall and Oates), and it recasts nine early Van Halen tunes in electro-pop guises, performed entirely without guitars. If you ever wondered what “Panama” would sound like as a blue-eyed soul tune with funk-slap bass – and who hasn’t? – well, it’s just fantastic. The whole record is.
I certainly have some favorites here, like “Eruption” (yes) played on piano, and “Jamie’s Cryin’” re-arranged for synthesizers, but retaining that perfect tom fill. “Hot for Teacher” is here in all its glory, Kurstin’s nimble piano sitting in for Van Halen’s guitars (and dig that amazing jazz piano solo) and Beck, of all people, imitating Roth’s banter. (Beck is the one element of the record that doesn’t work as well as it should, honestly.) “Jump” uses George’s voice to augment the famous synth line, while “Unchained” barrels ahead convincingly, taking its place as the fine, fine pop song it is.
The best thing here, though, is “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” which in its original form sports one of Eddie’s rawest and raunchiest guitar lines. That melody is here, but it’s played entirely on thick ‘80s synthesizers. It’s now perfect for night driving, George’s cooing voice somehow embodying the danger Roth brought to the original. It’s utterly fantastic, one of the best covers I’ve heard in years. It does set a tone the second half can’t quite match – the record peters out with a cover of a cover (the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” reinterpreted by Van Halen on their debut) and a new, loungier version of “Diamond Dave.”
But overall, Interpreting the Masters Volume 2 is one of the finest surprises of my year. I think what I like best about it is that it takes these testosterone-fueled whammy-bar “real rock” tunes completely out of their milieu, stripping away the guitars and putting a female voice front and center. And they still work, beautifully.
Nothing about this is a joke, either – this is a loving tribute to early Van Halen, with so many nuances that only fans of this music would know to include. Speaking as one of those fans, if this had been a halfway effort, it would have been easy to tell. But Kurstin and George truly know this material and obviously love it. If you do too, I can’t recommend this highly enough. I have no idea who The Bird and the Bee will choose as the subject of the third volume in this series, but I can’t wait to find out.
That’s it for this week. Next week, Marc Cohn returns and Bear Rinehart steps out. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.