Warner Bros., 1988
REVIEW BY: Ben McVicker
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/29/2011
Rarely has any artist squandered the momentum of their solo career so quickly as David Lee Roth. Having recruited the virtuoso guitar-bass tandem of Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan for his 1986 debut, Eat ‘Em And Smile, Roth proved the naysayers wrong and went toe-to-toe with his ex-bandmates in Van Halen. Following the critical success of Eat ‘Em however, Diamond Dave made the head-scratching decision to abandon the attitude and glam rock swagger for a different approach. Drenched in keyboards, vocal effects, and studio gimmickry, Skyscraper is a marked departure in style and sound that will have listeners asking, “Dave, if it ain’t broke – why fix it?”
The album is a frustrating one, given the talent involved. It’s difficult to pin down the greatest misstep. The first one to hit you is the predominance of keyboards. After Roth’s own criticism of Van Halen’s gradual drift toward cheesy pop songs near the end of his tenure with the band, it’s disappointing to hear Brett Tuggle get such a front and center place in the mix here. Many of the songs, such as leadoff single “Just Like Paradise” and “Hot Dog And A Shake,” are so layered with Tuggle’s keyboard textures that it just about poisons them. Listeners under 40 years of age, for whom the pop chimes of the 1980s hold no nostalgic value, will find themselves playing the album at a low volume out of embarrassment.
Also disappointing is that the album doesn’t sound like a band effort. With the duo of Roth and Vai handling both production duties and the majority of the songwriting, Skyscraper at times feels like a competition of egos between the two of them. One of the great things about Eat ‘Em And Smile was that there was equal room for everyone to flex their muscles. Gregg Bissonette had some blistering drum fills, and Sheehan had duel after duel with Vai, their musical interplay being one of the album’s greatest highlights. Here, Bissonette could be replaced with a drum machine on most tracks, and Sheehan is largely reduced to ‘just the bass player.’ Vai, meanwhile, indulges in a great deal of studio wizardry: cross-stereo panning, digital loops and effects, timing delays… the whole affair sounds processed and glossy. Likewise Dave. He’s all over the place on this one, as if needing to fit in some vocal rabble or a background chorus for every rapid-fire guitar lick that Vai pulls off. Where’s the rock n’ roll??
Some tracks are just awful. “Stand Up” and “Perfect Timing” are mainstream fare, with choruses that must have had the mullets bobbing up and down back in the day. “Damn Good” is a wistful, six-minute affair that has Vai strumming a 12-string riff with ‘80s chime, and even features what sounds like a bit of electric sitar. Ick.
Grievances and cheesy production values aside, there are still some cool moments. “Knucklebones” is a decent opener, capturing some of the swagger of Eat ‘Em, and Dave’s vocals go well with Vai’s melodies. “Just Like Paradise,” despite the Tuggle factor, captures the same goofy fun as “Goin’ Crazy” did. “The Bottom Line” has a pretty wicked instrumental break, and “Hina” is something of a forgotten nugget in Dave’s solo repertoire. Vai’s effects-laden rhythm playing actually complements Roth’s thoughtful, even affectionate vocal quite well.
The title track, “Skyscraper” is a fine example of the flawed execution that dogs this record. A softer track featuring an array of vocal and keyboard effects, DLR’s next guitarist, Jason Becker, eventually released an audition tape featuring his guitar-only interpretation of the song… and it absolutely smokes the studio version. One has to wonder what this album could have been, had Ted Templeman been in the producer’s chair again to save Roth and Vai from their own self-indulgence.
Overall, it’s a chore digging through these songs in search of the occasional catchy riff or jaw-dropping solo. Is it really worth suffering through Dave’s hokey vocals on “Two Fools A Minute” just to hear Sheehan get some rare (!) spotlight time?
One has to grant David Lee Roth credit for trying: whether glam rock, synth pop, lounge, or covers, the man always changed things up – a stark contrast to the play-it-safe formula that Van Hagar followed. But with that said, Skyscraper can only be seen as a disappointment. Rarely has so much talent amounted to so little.