Over three solo ventures, Richie Sambora has taken his audience into his psyche at different turning points in his life. His 1991 debut, Stranger in this Town was the culmination of a life work. It was a money shot of personal expression. He held nothing back on that record and with thirty-million in record sales in less than five years, he did not have to follow typical record company creed, he earned his artistic freedom. The ten songs that encompass Stranger have blues, hymnals, pining love songs and off-the-wall lusting soundscapes. Containing songs written from when he was nineteen ("The Answer") through the age of thirty-one ("Ballad of Youth"). The record did not sell like previous Bon Jovi records, but the fans often view it as a magnum opus with a wall full of colorful sounds and more importantly a declaration of tenacity. Sambora took his audience into his world and as you sat in the dark with a candle lit, when the final note rang from "The Answer" you felt as if you had taken on a life's journey through dark passages and roads of hope. His next solo disc appeared seven years later, Undiscovered Soul and Sambora constructed another eclectic set of songs digging into his classic rock influences. A lot had changed between his first and second solo records; he married Heather Locklear, went through his richest spell of creativity with Bon Jovi and became a father. The optimistic mood infected Undiscovered Soul and tinted it with rays of light not on Stranger. However, the album came out without promotion- it was as if it never existed. However, the title cut, "Fallen From Graceland" and the jagged guitar lullaby for his daughter "You're Not Alone" brewed with expressive vigor. Shortly thereafter, Richie and Jon Bon Jovi began writing in earnest for their 2000 release Crush, which contained "It's My Life", the song that took the band to new commercial and sales heights. Since then, the Bon Jovi machine has barely taken a breath and as of this writing, they have a new record ready for release in early 2013. Another solo record was always an option, but Sambora handled its creation delicately. After the lack of interest from his label on Undiscovered Soul Sambora managed to negotiate a release from Universal for Lowdown which being released by Dangerbird Records, home of the Silversun Pickups and Butch Walker.
Sambora's previous efforts were co-produced by men with rich classic rock roots. Neil Dorfsman had made his name working with Paul McCartney and Sting while Don Was is responsible for Bonnie Raitt's comeback and everything the Rolling Stones have recorded going back to Voodoo Lounge. For Lowdown Sambora returned to a familiar face, Luke Ebbin, who was an unknown a little more than a decade back when he was unexpectedly brought onboard to produce Crush. Ebbin has never received his due for taking the Bon Jovi sound into the 21st century. His work on Crush gave Bon Jovi a fresh modern sound and more importantly, it validated that Bon Jovi still had rock n' roll flowing through their veins. Ebbin was on board for the follow-up, Bounce in 2002, which is widely considered the band's weakest effort. I do not blame the production on that record, but rather the song choices, overriding themes and sequencing. To his credit, the band shines luminously on two cuts, the rev-up rocker "Hook Me Up" and the best modern day ballad the band has recorded, "The Distance" where Sambora's guitars fluctuate like a skipping heartbeat. On Lowdown Ebbin helped bring out the quiet menace living within Sambora's heart and mind. The sound of the record is exhilarating ear candy from the get-in-the-ring assault of "Burn That Candle Down" to the solemn prayer "World" that closes the record.
"Burn That Candle Down" opens the record in a tsunami of musical explosion as Sambora steers his band towards into a torrential musical breakdown where Prince takes on Jack White. His vocals are mixed in with the serrated performance giving the listener a mono feel as they experience one gargantuan and unrefined jam. Sequencing this cut at the front of the album was deliberate. Bon Jovi is a band whose sound as a live band has always surpassed their records, and this is the best document of what they're capable as musicians from the Bon Jovi camp since 1995's These Days. Much can be said about the backing band that Sambora assembled for the album. Aaron Sterling brings an energetic liveliness to the drums, Matt Rollings colors the songs with his organ and piano, Curt Schneider holds the line on bass, Rusty Anderson (best known for touring with Paul McCartney for over a decade) compliments Sambora with additional guitar while Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. embellishes the songs with his lovely keyboards. They never overshadow the songs, but vigorously threw themselves into the performances giving each song a well assembled sound that feel more like a band in a bar than an overproduced pop record.
The music housed within Lowdown distills decades worth of influences and largely defies categorization. Sambora knows his way around a song and here on Aftermath his songwriting talent flourishes in ways few could have imagined while the minimalist approach to the instrumentation helps bring the emotional pacing to a hopeful climax. The album is a rhapsodic blend of his musical personalities from the blues to rock to soul to pop but one continual influence I hear is Paul McCartney. The rehearsal room jams checks McCartney's first two solo records (McCartney and Ram) while sentimental and simple cuts such as "World" and "I'll Always Walk Beside You" tread tricky waters. The messages in these two songs are far and wide and could easily be dismissed but Sambora sings each song with such earthy earnestness, you cannot help but be seduced. The production on these two particular songs brings out their best without driving them off a cliff into pop hell. This is notable, because they could have easily been overproduced. A prayer to our planet ("World") is not the type of thing a rocker should do and it could be mocked, but it works because the message is not as heavy handed with his voice and a few guitars. "I'll Always Walk Beside You" is a valiant proclamation of love from a musician who grasps and comprehends the substantial experiences of our lives. Sometimes all we need is someone to place a hand on our shoulder reminding us that tomorrow will be better. Even a song like "Weathering the Storm" which may have a few clunky lyrics is redeemed by a searing guitar solo and Sambora's ambition and need for expression.
My favorite records are ones where the artist draws back the curtain to let me into their world. When you listen to Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan the doubt and confusion of a relationship that is ending is felt. Peter Gabriel's 1992 Us takes the listener on a heart rendering journey through jigsaw puzzle of musical styles where through poetry and world music he deconstructs the failing relationships around him from his broken communication with his daughter ("Come Talk To Me") to a relationship doomed due to a shared inability to converse and understand ("Secret World"). It is one thing to convey ache and another to outline the moment of awakening where you realize you have the key to your cell. As the world watched Sambora trouble in dealing with his pain in a very public manner, we all wondered when he had that moment of realization where his troubles caught up with him. The answer is clearer than ever on "You Can Only Get So High", a spellbinding confessional unpinned by melancholy piano keys. Deeply personal and haunting, you hear years of tumult come into focus as it hangs out there like a never ending breeze that reminding you of the trappings of not just success but life. He does not hold back from delivering a few punches to himself in a song full of forthright and sincere observations. He may have more money than I could earn in ten lifetimes, but by letting us inside, the ache is irrefutable. "Seven Years Gone" is an inner confrontation where toughness is balanced with tenderness yielding another masterful moment of awakening. On the volcanic "Learnin' How to Fly with a Broken Wing" Sambora and his unhinged band erupt into a poignant purge as the rubber burns on an open road where despite being battered, there is perpetual optimism. The finale of "Seven Years Gone" and "Broken Wing" showcases his rip-roaring six-string traits better than any song he's performed on since "Next 100 Years" from Crush.On the album's first single, "Every Road Leads To You", the piano keys underpins Sambora's evocative vocal. It is overflowing with sincerity, vulnerability and self-awareness. The song relies on Sambora's flair for observation and experience where he pulls it all together at the end fades out as he plays the melody solo on an acoustic bringing the intimacy to a head. The song's production has a cinematic feel, capturing a star struck lover trying to come to terms with the regrets from the past and the battles of the present.
People often talk about "characters" that embody art, but these songs are not character sketches of the disenchanted, they are private confessionals from Sambora himself. Never once do you feel that Sambora is talking down to his audience from a podium, but rather he's in the thick of the pit with us, lifting his shirt to show us his battle scars. On the album's eleven songs he unleashes a beast and pairs them with swift, razor-edged arrangements that do more than preach optimism, but force the listener to not just get in the car, but to be acutely aware of the rearview mirror, because no matter how far and wide we may drive, the past is always there. It is this intellectual realization where Sambora acknowledges and tackles his struggles that makes Lowdown such a engaging and endearing album. I would not have wanted to endure his tests in recent years and yet, hearing his woes and survival tactics makes me feel less alone, less afraid and more determined to tackle all tragedies that have and will befall me. He takes us to a fragile place where there is no community to sustain us and a clear and informed resolution must be made in order to carry on. Aftermath of the Lowdown is a celebrated artistic declaration capturing the ecstasies and agonies of Sambora's life and it more than a consequential tale of endurance but represents explicitly how our bewilderment can be turned into an avowal of tenacity. Richie Sambora's reward is the clear conscience he carries knowing that his hard fought battles were not in vain and the listener's reward is an album full of hard fought truths and lessons for us to behold.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Richie Sambora - Aftermath of the Lowdown