Monday, September 5, 2011

Chickenfoot III - Keeping Carter Happy

When I first heard that Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani had formed a band, I had this notion of what I hoped it would sound like. Quite selfishly, I had Hagar singing in a lower, more resonant register, and Satch boogieing in a less technical, more song oriented style. What I wasn't prepared for was a second studio outing (Chickenfoot III being released September 27 in the US) that delivered my dream in spades and far transcended my hopes for this group.

Chickenfoot III is a great band album - filled with satisfying songs that speak directly to our times, and ensemble playing that finds everyone in the band contributing not just equally, but sympathetically. Maturity is a beautiful thing, especially when applied to virtuosos who have been historically very heavy on the gas. Hagar has transformed his persona into that of a gracefully aging superstar who has turned his attention from the high life to the realities of 21st century America. I never thought that I would hear myself say that Sammy has written a lyrically important record, but he's done just that.

If the idea of Sammy Hagar singing vitally crucial and world weary rock in a soulful, smoky voice is a surprise, wait until you hear perhaps the most sophisticated guitarist in rock ease off the accelerator  and deliver spare, muscular riffs, and melodic and often brief (but wonderfully exciting and melodic) solos. Without question, Satriani is a remarkable musician - he's been consistently pumping out incredibly complex, and original instrumental rock since arriving on the scene with Not of This Earth in 1986. His playing on III is still filled with surprising turns, and stunning solos, but for all his amazing technical prowess, here he sounds like simply a great guitarist, playing great songs on a great record.

Before I get into the songs, I have to speak about the rhythm section of Chili Pepper Chad Smith, and the soul of Van Halen, bassist/vocalist Michael Anthony. Michael Anthony sings with the voice of an angel, and his high pitched background vocals are as distinctive a sonic signature as exists in all of rock history. They are completely unique and he's a master of placement and style - he somehow manages to never wear out his welcome, nor appear cliched. His partner in the pit, Chad Smith supplies a powerful engine that keeps things roped in and rock steady. He's super solid, plays what is needed with great energy and enthusiasm, yet none of the over playing that too often has become a fixture in heavy rock drumming. Their performance throughout the disc is superlative - perfect for the task.

The hard charging Last Temptation jumpstarts the album, as Satriani manages to channel everything that was cool about guitar playing in the early 80s - this isn't Free-styled simplicity, and it steers away from any sense of overindulgence.This mid tempo stomper will immediately have you hooked. Hagar could easily have over-sang this. He could easily have turned to his trademark over the top wailing, but his strong tenor sounds superb - no shortage of lung power or range, and a more controlled, both feet on the ground, kind of performance. Producer Mike Fraser's mix is a thing of beauty - great presence, separation, and superb tones. He got the absolute best out of the band on this record.

Alright sees Satch channeling himself from 1988, when he toured with Stone alone Mick Jagger. Smith counts it off, and who would have ever thought there would be a brilliantly Stonesy Chickenfoot number? Hagar and Anthony nail the chorus with vocals that remind me of Mick and Keith doing Motown. Come solo time, Satriani sounds like he spent some serious time wood-shedding the Band of Gypsies catalog, and he abuses his wah pedal superbly before he cuts loose with some melodic sizzling that leads beautifully into an elegant and majestic bridge that sees Sammy rapping out a little Jagger-esque commentary to his resisting lover. The writing far transcends the first Chickenfoot album, and sounds like these guys are now living in the same neighborhood in terms of marrying lyrics to riffs and melodies.

Chickenfoot music emerges. Different Devil sounds like Chickenfoot, and nothing else. It's a lovely, commercial piece of rock that has Hagar and Satriani sounding completely in sync, and then Sammy and Michael Anthony deliver a chorus that sounds both new and familiar - you know the sounds, but the melody is new - sincere, and synergistic. Satriani turns the composition around with a new set of sweet chord changes for his fuzz drenched solo, which actually leaves you wanting more. Different Devil is unapologetic commercial pop, but it is well written, well played, sung beautifully, and produced perfectly.

This is Chickenfoot as I had envisioned, and hoped for when I heard they were throwing in their collective lots. They have combined all of their obvious benefits, tempered their histrionic tendencies, and surrendered none of the fire that gave their past's such passion and acclaim.

I'm calling this review, Keeping Carter Happy. John Carter was Chickenfoots' founding manager, and he passed away in May of this year at 65. He assisted Hagar in originally putting this band together, but before that he had been an industry legend for over forty years. Carter’s career began in 1967, when he wrote the lyrics to Incense and Peppermints by the Strawberry Alarm Clock – a group he renamed by picking words from song titles on the week’s Hot 100 chart. He later went on to be integrally involved in the careers of Bob Seger and Steve Miller when they were at their biggest. He produced much of Tina Turner's huge comeback, including the mega-hit Private Dancer.

Up Next is Hagar's tribute to Carter, and it marks a return to big rock. Featuring a great purplish, hazy, modulating riff by Satriani, the rhythm section stomps hard on this one, as Sammy proselytizes on marching to the beat of your own drummer, and being your own man. Hagar is convinced that he is taking his act right on up to heaven, and checking in. True to the intent of Hagar's lyrics, Joe Satch tears off a solo that reminds you that he is Joe Satch - whammy bar wizardry and heavily effected hammering, combined with some fantastically imaginative mixing that will have you grabbing your headphones and listening to this repeatedly, wondering how he does it. Carter is smiling....

For all their firepower, you wouldn't expect Chickenfoot to do a number that would not sound a bit out of place on a mid 70s UFO album, and yet Lighten Up would indeed not be out of place as a long lost Schenker/Mogg track. I've a huge love for the creative team that made UFO one of the greatly undervalued hard rock bands of all time, so to say this is not to damn with faint praise, but rather to sing some glories. Satriani sounds like a combination guitarist/organist throughout, and Sammy is singing in a strong, confident tenor that makes it sound much more impressive when he does choose to go to a higher register. Satriani riffs like a classic Brit-rocker, and Smith and Anthony make like a Panzer tearing through the desert. Just goddamned good rock.

A troubled love song for our times is next on the queue, and while walking a difficult path in difficult times is not what we have come to expect as Hagar's forte, Sammy has stepped squarely on the American Zeitgeist with Come Closer. Singing in a smoky, soulful baritone, the red rocker turns troubadour, and he wears it like a crown. A poignant bridge again has Anthony singing amazing harmonies, and it all leads to a Satriani solo that has the six stringer beautifully arpeggiating synth-like lines. Michael Anthony's bass work is languid and loping, a magnificently sizzling and sexy underpinning.

Sammy Hagar constructed the verses of Three and a Half Letters from actual correspondences he has received from downtrodden and suffering fans, who did their part for a country that chose not to return the favor. If this doesn't move you, you are one cold mother. I have not been able to hear it without choking up as of yet. The song ends with Hagar singing, "The last letter said, 'I'm nine years old and I'm homeless.' Fuck!" Satriani's solo is perfectly angst ridden and angry, and again the band nails the vibe beautifully. This should become an anthem of our times.

Sammy Hagar has never sounded better, or written with anywhere near the emotion and empathy that he delivers throughout this record. In an interview with Music Radar (, the issue of both Hagar's vocals and Stariani's guitar playing were discussed:

"During the initial stages of writing, Satriani issued a directive to Hagar - sing differently: 'I had my reasons,' the guitarist says. 'It struck me that, whenever we would work together on songs, just the two of us, Sam would sing in a lower register. It was intimate, so full of soul. I thought, Wow, nobody has ever heard this quality in his voice before. He and I agreed that the new material would allow him to explore those other sides to his range.'"

At the same time, Hagar turned things around to Satch and told him that he wanted the guitar virtuoso to play his instrument in a new way. 'He wasn't as specific as I was,' says Satriani. 'But we did agree to take our creativity somewhere else. For me, it was something of an open canvas. It was hard at times, but ultimately it was very rewarding.'"

Big Foot began as a working title of one of Joe Satriani's demos for the record, but Hagar kept it, and built his lyrics to fit the concept. For me, this is the track that borrows the most from the band's past glories, and will keep longstanding fans in line for tickets. It's the one song on the record in which the singer can still not drive 55, and he's in fine classic red rocker form here.

Sophisticated, simmering blues is on tap with Dubai Blues. Driven by Chad Smith's super solid back beat, and Anthony's pumping bassline, the tune features Hagar singing a classic tale of the blues, that has the protagonist singing that he has everything in the world that he could want, but not the love that he needs. I absolutely love to hear this band groove with such muscle, and skill. Mike Fraser is a master in the realms of record production, and he makes this sound like an instant blues rock classic. A fabulous display of the incredible skills at play on this one.

Acoustic guitars, banjos....what do these have to do with Chickenfoot? I'll tell you. They wrap up an album that solidifies the fact that Chickenfoot is a band, not just a super-group project. The title is Somethings Gone Wrong, but the song is all right. If harkens back to the days when Paul Rodgers would own a room with his soulful pipes, and here the band have embraced that tradition, and added a few tricks of their own. Satriani plays against character here, but I believe that it may be just another facet of the same rock, one that has taken some time to ripen.

To say this album shocked me is an understatement. I read the interview on Music Radar, and Satch made it sound so interesting and good that I had to give it a whirl. These guys have made a great record, and have become a great band. They are now all they hoped to become when they joined forces. Indeed, Carter would be pleased....

You can pre-order Chickenfoot III at iTunes now.


Mark Jones said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.