Van Halen, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Brothers Records)

Ever since the sappy “Jump” became Van Halen’s first chart-topping single, the band has pursued melody at the expense of the mischievous abandon that fueled its earlier records. But with the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and Metallica upping the ante for power and aggression, maybe Van Halen’s abdication of the hard rock throne in favor of more melodic pastures wasn’t such a bad move. In this light, then, the songs on Van Halen’s latest fall into two categories: those that work as pop-rock, and those that don’t. Topping the list of the former are “Runaround” and “Top of the World”: hooks a-plenty, strong harmonizing on the choruses, typically tasty riffs from Edward Van Halen—when his fingers tumble down a fret board, the results are rarely disappointing. But where’s the fun in all this? At least 1989’s OU812 had the tequila, sun ‘n’ sand tribute “Cabo Wabo.” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is devoid of humor, unless the amateurish double entendre of “Poundcake” is somehow funny. And much of the remainder of the album falls flat. “In ‘N’ Out,” “Man On A Mission,” and “Spanked” are exceptionally bland. Moments of inspiration occasionally break through; “The Dream Is Over” jumps out of the box and makes a nice little run. “Right Now,” with an ominous piano prelude, succeeds in going somewhere special until it’s derailed by a lame chorus. And “316” is a pleasant enough guitar exercise, but, at barely a minute and a half in length, is woefully underdeveloped. Eddie, Sammy, Alex and Michael have seemingly settled into a comfortable groove of tossing off a few radio-ready anthems, surrounding them with filler and then shipping that sucker. If not careful, Van Halen may wind up as the World’s Most Talented Pop Metal Band—a dubious distinction at best.