Wolfgang Van Halen’s Mammoth WVH Effort Solid, But Questions Remain; Liz Phair as Good as Ever with First Album in a Decade

As the world seems to come out of the COVID pandemic and the shutdowns that occurred (and hope they do not return), the music world is beginning to emerge from its 18-month slumber. This means that plenty of these artists and groups are looking to get out on the road and, perhaps more importantly, release the music that they might have been sitting on for some time (Garbage, for example, was planning on releasing No Gods, No Masters in early 2020; it just came out in June).

This is a cause for celebration, because both new artists and older ones are beginning to emerge from the coronavirus-induced lockdown. Two of those artists we are going to be looking at today, the son of the late Eddie Van Halen, Wolfgang, and his “band” (more on this in a moment) and the outstanding return of everyone’s favorite alternative darling from the 1990s, Liz Phair. Both of these new releases are well worth inclusion in your CD racks (or your digital downloads), bringing some great sounds to the rock world.

To say it has been a tough year for Wolfgang Van Halen would be a massive understatement. He has had to bury his father, the iconic Eddie Van Halen, in October of 2020, and it has fallen on his shoulders to try to carry on the family name. Wolfgang has done that through the creation of a new “band,” Mammoth WVH (the “Mammoth” moniker was the original name of Van Halen), and the release of a self-titled CD.

Let us start with the good stuff from Van Halen and Mammoth WVH. The reason we have quotation marks on “band” is a simple one: Wolfgang played all the instruments on the album. Wolfgang shows that he is an excellent multi-instrumentalist, more than adequately showing his proficiency across the board, and Van Halen also wrote all 14 of the tracks that appear on the disc.

By far the best song on the record is the current release “Don’t Back Down,” which had a video that showed Van Halen playing with himself on each of the instruments on the track. The tune itself is a driving, inspired rocker that is a perfect for a summertime drive. Another excellent track is “Horribly Right,” which starts off with a chugging sound reminiscent of some older grunge acts.

The biggest thing to note about the tracks on the CD is that Wolfgang is in no way trying to use his father’s success to get a leg up (although there are plenty who will accuse him of this). Musically he stays a wide distance from the Van Halen band musical styling. If you did not know he was Van Halen’s son, many people would be crowing about how good this record is.

Here is the downside of the album, however. It is reported that Wolfgang began work on this album in 2015. That is six years to perfect the record, a luxury that many young acts do not have, and Wolfgang certainly will not have when it comes to trying to duplicate the success of this record (it is also understandable that he didn’t want to release the record while his father was going through his issues). Wolfgang’s vocals are also a bit weak; his voice is OK, but it is nothing that blows you away with quality or strength. If he is going to continue as the vocalist for the group, he would need to improve that aspect of his game.

That said, his dad did pretty well for not singing, didn’t he?

Expect to see a lot of Mammoth WVH this summer and fall, as Van Halen is putting a band around him to serve as a headlining act. It is well deserved, but I am going to be extremely interested in seeing what he does when he doesn’t have the years to work on something. Mammoth WVH is an outstanding first salvo, however…let’s see what comes next.

You can be forgiven if you do not know the name Liz Phair. After all, her last studio album Funstyle was released over a decade ago (2010). But if you ask your older sibling or perhaps your mother or father, they can regale you with the stories about the blisteringly smart work that Phair did in the 1990s, from her debut Exile in Guyville (her reply to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street) in 1993 to her equally outstanding follow up Whip-Smart.

After drifting too close to the sun for some of her fans – or, as the case may be, trying to be too popular, in their opinions – Phair’s success began to wane. Her label at the time, Capitol Records, forced her to work with songwriters who had penned tunes for Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne, which forced a more poppy sheen to her recordings. This didn’t sit well with Phair or her audience and, after 2010’s Funstyle, Phair stepped away from the recording industry.

Phair first began to emerge from her self-imposed exile with the compilation Girly Sound to Guyville, a 2018 25th anniversary celebration of her early work. That compilation, which brought some of her straight-to-cassette work on what was called the “Girly Sound” sessions, seems to have been a spark for Phair. In June, Phair released Soberish, arguably her best work since the Guyville/Whip-Smart 1-2 in the early 90s.

Always one who had a deft turn of phrase, Phair has not lost any of her talents in the decade-plus of wandering that she has taken. One of the more charming songs from the record is “Hey Lou,” her ode to the late Lou Reed told from the angle of his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson (the video also featured a unique interpretation of the song featuring Reed, Anderson, and Andy Warhol puppets). The lyrical storytelling of Phair is priceless in the song, touching on not only the relationship of Anderson and Reed but also Phair’s appreciation of the duo.

By far the best song off the CD is the title track, “Soberish.” It is a confession from someone who is struggling with their sobriety but is taking the big step of getting back into the dating scene. Phair’s character in the song knows that it is not the thing that she should do, but she also knows that a little something from the bar will help to quell the questions dancing around her head. It is the story of the little inner battles that we all have faced at one point or another in our lives, sometimes in a romantic situation or sometimes elsewhere.

Lyrical dexterity spreads throughout Soberish like a rich tapestry, and the disc should be something that is in every record collection. “I meant to be sober, but the bar’s so inviting…” and other jewels abound on the disc, and it leaves you wanting more by the time you reach the end. Her voice is still tremendously resilient, showing the same toughness and delicacy that drew the music world to her back in the 1990s. We can only hope that Phair does not take another decade-plus sabbatical, because that would be a waste of an incredibly special treasure.