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Old 02-03-2012, 09:38 AM   #807 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Undiscovered soul --- Richie Sambora --- 1998 (Mercury)


Almost as much a driving force behind megastars Bon Jovi as the man whose name the band bears, Richie Sambora writes most of their music in concert with frontman Jon Bon Jovi, and also plays guitar, but he has released two solo albums of his own, both of which are quite excellent and stand as separate works in their own right, away from the massive output of his parent band. I could have reviewed them both, but although I love “Stranger in this town”, it does have one or two weaker tracks on it, while I feel this one has few if any. With all the work Bon Jovi do, what with recording, writing, touring, TV slots and so on, it's a wonder Richie ever got the chance to put out a solo album, but as I say, this is his second.

It starts with a good rocker, “Made in America”, where Sambora recalls his own youth and how he got into music. It's a nice mid-paced song, with acoustic becoming electric guitar, Hammond organ from Billy Preston swelling in the background, but of course as he's a guitarist the song is dominated by Sambora's guitar sound, but not to the detriment of the other instruments. Good solid drumming too from Kenny Aronoff, and a very decent opener with a simple message. The song also proves, if it needed to be proved, that Richie Sambora can sing very well indeed.

“Hard times come easy” has a very Springsteen feel to it, with whistling keys from Robbie Buchanan and a song about overcoming adversity through love. Nothing new here, but Sambora isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, just stay separate enough from his Bon Jovi roots to allow him to stretch outside that limit, but still keep fans of the band interested enough to buy his albums. It's a very upbeat track, with a real message of hope: ”There's gonna be thunder/ Gonna be rain/ Gonna be those times/ We both get caught up in the pain/ Realisation sinkin' in/ Way to make it/ Learn to take it on the chin.” No time, as Queen once immortally sang, for losers. Some great solo work here from the Bon Jovi man, but again he doesn't showboat, just gets on with the job in hand. Sounds like Billy Preston there on background vocals too.

Even more impressive is the ballad “Fallen from Graceland”, with its low-key acoustic guitar while the electric whines in the background, lovely bit of fretless bass from Pino Palladino, and then Sambora's voice is soft and wistful as he sings ”There's nowhere left to hide/ When you're tangled up inside.” After the exuberance and optimism of the first two tracks, the somewhat fatalism of this one takes you a little by surprise. There's no solution, no advice, just a statement of fact: ”When you're too proud to crawl/ Keeps your back against the wall/ You wanna die, but you live/ With nothing left to give.” Nice keyboard lines holding the melody too, very relaxing.

To his credit, Sambora does not rope in any help from his bandmates, unlike on his debut, other than to co-write three songs with keyboardist David Bryan, of which this is one. He could very easily have involved Jon or even Tico or Alec, (Tico Torres and David Bryan both guested on “Stranger in this town”, though Jon was never involved in any way) but chose to sail this ship alone, and it certainly seems to have worked for him. After the melancholy soul-searching of “Fallen from Graceland”, Richie grins and unleashes the powerfully fun “If God was a woman” upon us, knowing exactly how to bring the mood back up. In a fast blues tune, he asks ”If God was a woman/ Would you be impressed/ If she showed up in high heels/ And a pretty red dress?” Great harmonica helps infuse even more fun into this smart, sassy little song. Not sure the religious Right would approve, though!

It's another co-written with his Bon Jovi bandmate, and right through the album Sambora collaborates with one or the other songwriters, which is perhaps something of a disappointment, showing that he either can't, or isn't comfortable writing a song on his own. I suppose he feels most at home in a songwriting partnership, which is fine: play to your strengths. “All that really matters” is another ballad, piano driven, very simple melody, and you would have to wonder, considering the passion with which it's sung, if this isn't dedicated to his then-wife, Heather Locklear. Sadly, the two parted company in 2006, but around this time he would only have been married to her for four years, so their marital problems would not have been surfacing yet.

Great song, with a lovely restrained little solo from Richie and some fine keyboards, a sharp, Brian May-esque guitar part also there, then he really lets loose for “You're not alone”, a powerful, guitar-driven slow rocker whose lyrical theme is certainly that of a ballad, but delivered with force and energy. I know arranger normally refers to the musical arrangement, but if it were to mean the order which the tracks are arranged on the album, Sambora as arranger has done an outstanding job here. With five ballads in total, he's spaced them evenly across the album, not grouping them either near the beginning nor at the end, the latter of which many artistes prefer. I like the way he's done this: it's like, hard rock track, softer rock track, ballad, and it rounds out the album very well.

As an example of that, “In it for love” is another ballad, played on acoustic guitar with minimal percussion thanks to Paulhino da Costa, perhaps the closest Sambora comes to a Bon Jovi-like track on the album, while still remaining his own distinctive product. But you could hear this being played at a Bon Jovi concert, certainly. None of the singles released from the album charted particularly well, but somehow I don't think Richie is short of a bob or two, so I doubt that mattered much to him. This definitely comes across as much more a personal project, something intimate and important to him, rather than an attempt to cash in on his superstar status and the Bon Jovi fanbase. Though I'm sure that helped in its own way.

“Chained” is a faster, harder rock tune, but still with a sense of restraint about it, and it's clear Richie can rock out much harder than this, so is he consciously holding back, trying to make this less of an obvious tie back to his parent band? Or is he just experimenting, seeing what his limits are? Whichever, it's a worthy effort, and just about every track stands on its own, though there are standouts, one of which is coming up next. Opening on a scaled guitar intro almost like that old favourite, “Classical gas”, the moody and introspective “Harlem rain” is indeed one of the best tracks, perhaps the best track on the album. Its simplicity and honesty, as Sambora sings of a guy down on his luck and how he has nothing left to look forward to, is touching and painfully real. ”There's a tattoo of his sweetheart/ Painted on his arm/ He talks a painful tragedy/ How he lost his lucky charm/ His memory is clouded/ From the thunder in his veins/ He's vanishing, vanishing, gone/ In the Harlem rain.” Some mounrful violin accompanies the guitar, a keyboard melody washing them along like flotsam in the gutters as the rain lashes the grey streets. I would put this as perhaps Richie Sambora's best turn on the guitar, his best performance on the album. It's restrained, sad, soulful, tragic and immensely hard-hitting, all in one, and really it's his world-weary voice that carries the tune, despite his excellent and technically flawless guitar work.

Then he ramps it up to ten for “Who I am”, perhaps the hardest, heaviest rocker on the album, almost at times approaching heavy metal territory as he cries ”Who I used to be/ Ain't who I am/ If you walked inside my shoes/ Maybe you would understand.” A powerful track with a truly epic guitar solo, where we really see what Sambora can do on the guitar, and then it all cuts back for the ending with an expressive and intricate little guitar piece that takes the track to its end in a very low-key fashion. In ways, the album as a whole can almost be seen as a concept, the journey of one man --- be it autobiographical or not --- from his youth playing around and not caring about much, through his life and loves, to his career, all the time trying to find the answer to the question asked in, and titled by, this track. The closer, too, deals with part of the story, if you choose to see the album, or parts of it, as linked and telling a story, but before that we have the other contender for top track, and the last penned by him with David Bryan, the power ballad “Downside of love”.

Starting off with screeching guitar, wailing organ and heavy drums, it's an affirmation that everyone goes through tough times, but that love triumphs in the end. Old story, yes, but no less true. Very blues style guitar from Sambora, and some great technical expertise on a really good song, fine backing vocals. A song with a great hook, “Downside of love” would have been a worthy closer, but there's one more track to go before we finish, and it's the title. Opening on chugging guitar, joined by keyboards and percussion, it's bringing the story of the album --- if it exists, anywhere else than in my mind --- full circle, with the tale of someone leaving home and trying to make it on their own in the world.

The trepidation of taking that first huge step are shown in the lyric ”She was standing at the station/ Smalltown suitcase in her hand/ There were dreams she found inside her/ That no-one cared to understand.” but the determination to cut the ties and get out of a bad situation wins through: ”She's scared to go/ But still she says goodbye.” The song gets going as a mid-paced rocker with balladic elements, and it's interesting that, similar to “Fallen from Graceland”, Sambora doesn't offer any solutions, no resolution to the drama of life playing out every day on the streets, as he shrugs ”When you walk that road/ You walk alone/ Just an undiscovered soul/ In the great unknown.” Not happy sentiments to be sure, but sobering and very honest and realistic.

It's a great ending to a great album, and as I said before, it's heartening to see Richie Sambora resist the urge to draw on the talent available to him in Bon Jovi, determined to make this album on his own. As an album by the Bon Jovi guitarist it's a triumph, as a solo album by a supremely talented guitarist and singer, it's a revelation and a vindication that Richie Sambora is more than the sum of his parts, and is more than able to exist on his own merits outside the confines of the band that gave him his real shot at fame.

He's a star. But then, you knew that already.

TRACKLISTING

1. Made in America
2. Hard times come easy
3. Fallen from Graceland
4. If God was a woman
5. All that really matters
6. You're not alone
7. In it for love
8. Chained
9. Harlem rain
10. Who I am
11. Downside of love
12. Undiscovered soul

Recommended further listening: “Stranger in this town”
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