Eat 'Em And Smile
Warner Brothers, 1986
REVIEW BY: Ben McVicker
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/26/2011
There are some things, it seems, that you just had to be there for at the time to grasp the impact of. The 1980s music scene had many such occasions. The assassination of John Lennon. The Live Aid concert for Ethiopia. The unlikely comeback of such classic rock mainstays as Deep Purple (with 1984's Perfect Strangers) and Aerosmith (with 1987's Permanent Vacation).
But I can't imagine that any of them came close to the shock and awe which accompanied the 1986 release of David Lee Roth's full-length solo debut, Eat 'Em And Smile. The sheer contrast with Van Halen's tepid 5150 album, released a few months earlier and featuring Sammy Hagar on vocals, is unbelievable. In one corner, you have Roth's former bandmates diving headfirst into a ten years-long songwriting coma, shifting their focus to keyboard-oriented pop songs about love and relationships. In the other corner, you have Diamond Dave, who's recruited a virtuoso guitar and bass tandem in Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan, along with a solid drummer in Gregg Bissonette.
Wow. Just wow. To be a years-long Van Halen fan, reared on Eddie's breakout guitar playing, and to be blindsided like this in 1986...? Seriously? Eat 'Em And Smile is chock full of fun, high-energy hard rock histrionics, chock full of furious interplay between Vai and Sheehan. It's everything that Van Halen was up to and including 1981's Fair Warning and everything that they were not post-1985.
You get the full package with this short, thirty-minute rock album, and things kick off on a solid note with leadoff track and single, "Yankee Rose." Featuring a running staple in Dave's live shows with the 'talking guitar' tradeoff with Steve Vai, the song has a solid beat and finds Roth in stronger voice than the last couple VH albums. The video would become an MTV classic, and the chorus is still good fun to sing in 2011, twenty-five years after it hit the airwaves.
"Shyboy" is a carry-over from Billy Sheehan's days in Talas, but with Vai and Roth added to the mix, the song gets a steroid injection. The synchronized tapping solos on guitar and bass will make your jaw drop on first listen.
Roth switches gears with "I'm Easy," one of a few loungier numbers on the plate along with "That's Life." It's good hammy fun, and it's clear that the band is a real chuckle in the studio with these covers. Sure, it's cheesy, but Dave delivers the songs with a wink and a smile, whereas the real tragedy about Van Hagar was that Eddie and the boys were being dead serious as they cranked out dross like "Love Walks In."
"Ladies' Night In Buffalo?" is the best of the quieter tunes. It has a smooth groove, with Dave's band showing they can stay in the background and carry a song, in addition to showing off their chops. Vai offers up a very tasteful solo in this one, much closer to Eddie's style than his own playing with Frank Zappa and Alcatrazz.
The second half of the disc offers up a heap of rock tunes after the hokey single of "Goin' Crazy!" – which is still worth a listen just for the tasteful guitar solo punctuated by Sheehan's harmonics. A cover of "Tobacco Road" carries a heavy swagger courtesy of Bissonette’s drumming, and it features one of Vai's standout solos, closer in style to some of his later playing. "Elephant Gun" meanwhile, is a workout for aspiring bass players with Sheehan's rapid picking during the early verses. It also features the most intense of his soloing duels with Vai, who, at this early phase in his career, can still work within the confines of a four-piece rock group without overplaying. His solo on "Big Trouble" is fantastic – while he never had the same knack for rhythm playing as Eddie, Vai proves himself a more than worthy replacement for EVH on this record.
When David Lee Roth left Van Halen, he took the band's longtime producer, Ted Templeman with him. And perhaps Templeman was a greater part of those first six VH albums than we think, as Eat 'Em And Smile sounds like a true successor to them, despite a touch of glam and MTV sensibility. It has the humor, the attitude, and the outstanding musicianship that Van Halen possessed with Roth at the mic, and the Vai / Sheehan combo is the icing on the cake.