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Saturday, March 07, 2009

10 Must Have Albums - #10

- Eat 'Em And Smile - David Lee Roth
Released: July 7, 1986

#10 This album will always be memorable to me because the video for the first single, "Yankee Rose", was released so much earlier than the album. Most of us that were fans of David's were already intimately familiar with that song by time the album was released. I have always thought of this album as the Van Halen album after 1984. To me this sounded more like Van Halen than 5150, the actual Van Halen release from the same year. 5150 on the other hand was more of another Sammy Hagar solo album.

The fact that Van Halen had split the year before was still fresh in everyone's minds in 1986. When the video for "Yankee Rose" was released most of the people I knew drew to David's side in the split. Until then most people had been kind of lost as to who to blame for the break-up, but almost no one that considered themselves a Van Halen fan was over it. I don't remember exactly when Yankee Rose was released as a single, but I know it seemed like months between its release and the album's release. In hindsight one has to wonder if Roth released the song so earlier to one up Van Halen's release of 5150, and their first single from that album "Why Can't This Be Love" in March of 1986.

Most of us seized on "Yankee Rose" as a typical Van Halen song, while "Why Can't This Be Love" struck most of us as more of a solo Hagar song. Still, both albums were commercially successful. But it was Eat 'Em And Smile that stood out to me. There were other albums released that year that I listened to (some make this list!), but Roth's was defining because of the drama that was Van Halen in 1985 and 1986.

It wasn't until recently that I found out that "Yankee Rose" was written about the Statue of Liberty. Looking back it was so obvious with all of the references to Americana in that song. 1986 was also the year on July 4th of the big unveiling of the renovated Statue of Liberty, and Roth's vocals make several references to that as well. Even the release of the album on July 7th, which was the Monday after the 4th of July holiday weekend, seems to pay homage to the SOL, and all things American.

To put this album in context, the summer of 1986 was the summer before my senior year in high school. Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president. America had reclaimed its place in the 80s as the premier power in the world after the awful, scandalous 70s, and the cultural changes of the 60s. The 80s were about pride, fun, enjoying life, and patriotism. Eat 'Em And Smile was definitive in these themes, and as such really resonated with someone like myself.

"Yankee Rose" was only the beginning of that though, as the other singles ("That's Life", "Tobacco Road", "Goin Crazy") were also very upbeat fun-loving songs. Roth had always brought a splash of variety to Van Halen, and that was evident in this solo effort as well. Songs like "That's Life" and "I'm Easy" hearkened back to Van Halen songs like "Happy Trails" or "Ice Cream Man", and showed that Roth was not afraid to mix it up. Ironically, nothing as adventurous would ever be produced by Van Halen after Roth's departure.

David Lee Roth has always been known as the ultimate frontman. When most rock fans think of a frontman, Roth comes to mind. (I've always wondered if his ability to "steal the show" wasn't want got him kicked out of Van Halen.) His showmanship never seemed to be put away whether live in concert, in music videos, or even being interviewed. Roth just had the ability to shine in all situations, and that was off-putting for some people. I always admired it though, and would list Roth as the all time greatest frontman in rock history.

The rest of Roth's band on Eat 'Em And Smile were accomplished musicians. Comprised of Steve Vai on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass, and Greg Bissonette on drums. Vai has always been considered a world class guitarist and he owes most of his fame today to the fact that he played with Roth, following in the footsteps of Edward Van Halen. Vai would go on after his stint with Roth to a successful solo career. Sheehan would find commercial success with the band Mr. Big. Bissonette has built a career on being a big name session drummer, playing on several successful projects.

It was Vai though that helped propel Eat 'Em And Smile. What Van Halen failed to realize is that the vocals are what identify a band's sound more than anything else. While it could be successfully argued that Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai's guitar style are vastly different, in the end to the casual listener guitar is guitar. But vocal sounds are so unique that Roth's solo work sounded more like Van Halen than Van Halen did with Sammy Hagar's vocals. This caused Van Halen fans to split into two camps: those that identified more closely with Roth's vocals (the largest of the two camps) and those that were Eddie Van Halen loyalists. The latter remains rabid in their defense of Van Halen's merry-go-round of vocalists in the years since the split with Roth, while those that sided with Roth have mellowed in that stance over the years.

Still, Eat 'Em and Smile remains as a timeless classic that defined an era of Van Halen. Roth unfortunately could never recapture the magic on subsequent releases, but that doesn't diminish the fact that he struck gold with this release. From the forming of his band, to the writing, recording, and producing of the music, to the music videos and concert tour, Roth was hitting on all cylinders. Meanwhile, Van Halen pulled out of making music videos in an effort to let the music stand on its own. In the end Van Halen's huge popularity was able withstand the mistakes of the Van Halen brothers, while Roth was still able to carve out his own following.

The singles from EEAS were all catchy and fun, but the entire album was a bright spot. "Shy Boy" was one of the most musically complex songs on the release, and a favorite to fans that have more depth than just listening to the hits. "Elephant Gun", "Big Trouble", and "Bump And Grind" are also excellent cuts that keep the listener engaged. Roth's signature has always been to mix it up though, and "Ladies' Nite In Buffalo?" has that quality. While not as musically adventurous as the lounge songs "I'm Easy" and "That's Life", "Ladies' Nite In Buffalo?" is stylistically stretching, but pulled off perfectlyl. Most fans wrote it off as filler on first listen, but it becomes a bright spot with additional listens.

Whether you are a Roth fan, Van Halen fan, or both, Eat 'Em and Smile is a must have. It still takes me back to 1986 to pull that album out and listen to it. It's running time of 30 minutes and 39 seconds was also indicative of the time-period, because albums have grown in length since the mid-80s. But EEAS is short, enjoyable, and very listenable. In 1986 it was all about having fun, and EEAS perfectly captures that.

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