Part of being a true Van Halen fan is always feeling the band never gets its due. Sure, people rave about Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing. And I’ve never met someone without an opinion about David Lee Roth versus Sammy Hagar. The band has sold tons of albums, but does anyone respect them as songwriters? Well, there’s me and Inara George and Greg Kurstin, better known as The Bird and the Bee. On Interpreting the Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen, they thoughtfully and respectfully revisit the music of Van Halen through the lens of their own delicate, keyboard-driven pop.
The album (volume 1 was dedicated to Hall and Oates) focuses on the Roth years, which makes sense emotionally. The first Roth/Van Halen epoch is what captured the attention of so many. Plus, a lot of the big hits of the Hagar era are keyboard-heavy, probably making the work of translating the songs less interesting to The Bird and the Bee. Taking the mostly guitar-driven songs and making them work for the keyboard is a fascinating act of mental gymnastics. People often forget that Eddie began his musical career as a classically trained pianist. His musical DNA is keyboard-derived, even as he avoided the instrument for the early part of his career. So here we have The Bird and the Bee extracting something from the music that’s present, but not necessarily explicit. It’s a musical excavation.
Take “Eruption,” Eddie’s classically-flavored instrumental tour-de-force that pretty much redefined the rock guitar solo for generations of guitarists. Here, arranged for piano, it simply sounds classical, like the type of thing people in tuxedos and long dresses might watch in a stuffy hall. The Bird and the Bee have taken Eddie full circle to his roots. The piano arrangement has the added bonus of bringing out the beauty of the piece. Hearing “Eruption” on guitar, one tends to focus on the speed of the guitar. But on the piano, you hear how pretty it sounds.
It’s also interesting to hear Van Halen’s lyrics, which have the subtlety of a mid-July keg stand, given a bit of refinement. In Roth’s mouth, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” oozes sex and physical attraction, a catcall over two chords. The Bird and the Bee recast it as sexless New Wave, the song’s guitar hook now a synth riff that would make Robert Smith jealous. They find a depth that’s not apparent in the original, but still manage to slip an orgasmic yell into the final chorus, perhaps powerless to completely ignore the song’s inherent sleaze.
The album also tackles “You Really Got Me,” a Kinks’ cover Van Halen included on their debut. While the song is probably as much Van Halen’s as the Kinks by now, it feels a little outside the scope of the project, as does the inclusion of “Diamond Dave,” a Bird and the Bee original (from 2009’s Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future), reworked for piano. These are minor quibbles, though. Even the less successful covers, which almost veer into Billy Murray, Nick The Lounge Singer territory, are still interesting, revealing a new way to hear the original. The album works because The Bird and the Bee love Van Halen. Because who else would re-create the “Jump” keyboard riff chorally, making it seem like it’s being performed by angels from heaven? The answer is someone finally giving Van Halen their proper due.