I don’t say this lightly. Without Richie Sambora there is most probably no MVM. Quite what made the second that I heard “You Give Love A Bad Name” on the radio in 1986 the exact moment I decided that music was my life, I don’t honestly know, but it was, and I did. And moreover, I’d argue that everything that Bon Jovi did for the next 10 years stands up with anything ever recorded.
But therein is the problem that Sambora is up against. No longer in the band, everything he does is viewed by idiots like me through the prism of what went on in a band in the last century.
Which, actually does him a massive disservice. Not least because his solo stuff is brilliant. “Stranger In This Town” is one of my favourite albums, and the track “Learning How To Fly With A Broken Wing” on 2012’s “Aftermath Of The Lowdown” is better than anything Jovi have done since he left.
The reason for this Sambora nostalgia? Well he’s the RS in RSO. The O is just as important. Orianthi, the woman who was the first female member of Alice Cooper’s band (Coop is on this record) and the woman who helped Sambora overcome his well-documented problems has been at his side emotionally and professionally for the last five years or so, and this is the pair’s first full-length record.
Basically three records in one. The duets, the Richie solo ones and likewise for Orianthi, it is astonishingly varied – rock, pure pop, and one – “Masterpiece” – that in all honesty could be a Britney Spears song (forgive my lack of knowledge of modern chart stuff, she’s the most up to date reference I’ve got).
The one at its heart, though, is “Take Me” – the first one sung by just Sambora – it has a Latin shuffle and sees him lay things bare. “I tried to be somebody else, that didn’t fly” he sings. “Deep inside, I gotta hope I’m not a joke” he offers in the next verse. This – literally – is Sambora as never before.
Make no mistake, though, that although this is nothing like the Jovi diehards might hope (and credit to them both for that) this is a modern, bombastic rock n roll record when it wants to be. “Making History” is an arena rocker and although its built around the top 40, “We Are Magic” has enough grit in its guitar too. “Rise” – a real highlight – is a thumping thing that soars in a way that is a million times better than anything Shinedown have ever done or will ever do.
Anyone who’s ever seen the pair play will understand just how talented they are. Here they are able to turn their hands to all kinds of things. “Walk With Me” is Americana of the type that Springsteen might do – that is before it heads off in an entirely new direction, while “I Don’t Wanna Have To Need You Now” is ample proof that Sambora has still got it.
A record that is more honest than pretending to be something you aren’t, has “Truth” as its centrepoint, a big old tear jerker, expect it to be the first dance at a wedding near you somewhere soon, while Alice does what only he can on “Together On The Outside.”
A lengthy collection – 15 songs is huge these days – it mostly works. “Good Times (Country)” is pop as you like, “Forever All The Way” is – if you will – this record’s “Always” moment but, being honest, their cover of “I Got You Babe” doesn’t need to be here, and if you were going to cut some extraneous fat, this would do.
Whether you like all of this is going to be down to personal choice. “One Night” is so overblown it’d be at home in a musical, if that’s your bag, then you’ll love it. For our money “Blues Won’t Leave Me Alone” – with superb lead vocals from Orianthi – is better, while the epic (and at nearly nine minutes long that’s the only word for it) closer “Hellbound Train” is arguably the most daring of the lot – and yes I know even though it is a cover it’s basically a reworking of “Homebound Train” from “New Jersey”, but crikey its good.
Ultimately, if you listen to “Radio Free America” with an open mind you’ll find plenty here to please. The key is the title; It’s made for Radio, it’s very American, but it’s the sound of artists given free rein away from the expectations of the past. And whilst it doesn’t always work, it is lovely to hear the RS of RSO making music that he believes in again and that needed the O factor, if you will.