Album review: Steve Vai’s Flex-able

First in an occasional series.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Vai eventually became prominent as the guitarist on David Lee Roth’s debut solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile, where Vai came out blazing. On tracks like the hilariously-titled Shy Boy (David Lee Roth? Seriously?), the notes fly out of the fretboard at about 800 per second. But hard-rockin’ though that album is, DLR was essentially a one-thing act; he wanted to do hard rock and nothing but hard rock. And that’s cool. That’s great. But. Vai evidently had broader goals, a fact that had been displayed on his earlier solo album Flex-able, an uneven but ultimately worthwhile pastiche of, uh, everything.

This is a time capsule from the era of the Guitar God [1978 (Van Halen’s first album) – circa 1993, requiescat in pace] and it exhibits most of the virtues and vices of that era. The guitar technique can be very impressive, prompting one to blurt, “How does he do that!?” But from a musical perspective it often makes one ask, “Um…why did he do that?” The ugly and pointless There’s Something Dead in Here is a good example.

Music qua music is the main stumbling block here. Some tracks, like Next Stop Earth, are just technique for the sake of technique. On the other hand, Viv Woman is a classic 4/4 blast with the distortion knob turned all the way up, and it rocks. And Burning Down the Mountain and Call it Sleep also use simple themes, but are melodically pretty, which is ultimately the whole point.

When Vai ventures into songs – as opposed to instrumentals – he often founders, at least when he tries to be serious, as with The Boy/Girl Song and Junkie. There aren’t enough departures from the cliches to convey anything but triteness. (Boys and girls often find each other exasperating! Who knew!?) But when he tosses away the attempts to be profound, and just has fun, he creates amusing confections like Little Green Men and So Happy.

Little Green Men about four-foot-two
Maybe they want to mate with you

Little Green Men about four foot
Maybe they want to kick some butt.

The governments of the world are very good at concealing the presence of these little visitors… until we are ready to enter the Age of Light Without Heat.

All of this diverting silliness occurring with interesting guitar noises in the background. Vai’s most entertaining when he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The track So Happy is pure showing off, but fun due to the novelty. The piece begins with a woman speaking about a how nice it would be if everyone could be happy all the time. A minute in, Vai starts matching her, perfectly, on the guitar. Even my son, who is in grade school and knows nothing about the guitar, exclaimed, “How does he do that?” I would love to send this track back in time to before the Guitar God era, say 1955, and watch the expressions on people’s faces.

Overall, you should definitely own this album if you (1) are interested in the guitar and the history of innovation with the instrument, or (2) have eclectic musical tastes, as this album has a little of everything.