Bon Jovi went on hiatus after the lengthy New Jersey tour. Their future appeared uncertain. Jon had released his first solo album, a soundtrack called Blaze of Glory. Alec John Such was reportedly opening carwashes in Hungary, although that was probably a joke answer in a magazine interview. Meanwhile, the rest of Bon Jovi (Richie Sambora, David Bryan and Tico Torres) gathered in the studio to record. With Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, the group assembled Richie’s first solo album, Stranger In This Town. Although fans were worried about a possible split, there was much excitement for Richie to have a chance to sing his own songs. Adding to the hype, Eric Clapton appeared as a special guest. (Randy Jackson played bass on one song, “One Light Burning”.)
Sambora seemed to determine to fly his own colours. Predominantly, that’s blue, as in the blues. He also mixed in soul, pop, and rock to create an album that wouldn’t alienate any Bon Jovi fans. David Bryan contributed songwriting, and there is even one Bon Jovi song in the mix. It’s not a guitar album, although it need not be stated that the guitar playing on this album is brilliant. Richie went for feel and atmosphere rather than flash.
This is apparent on opening track “Rest in Peace”. It’s not really a full-fledged song, but more an introduction to the album. It even has listening instructions: “Turn down the lights…light a candle…welcome.” That doesn’t sound very rock and roll, does it? But it is good advice. That’s the kind of album this is. “Rest in Peace” is loaded with soul, and this merges with the pop rock on “Church of Desire”. A song like this wouldn’t have worked with Bon Jovi. It has more soul, and its quiet production lets the music breathe more than Bon Jovi songs do. It’s a brilliant track, and Richie’s solo just blasts. Different from Bon Jovi, but accessible for Bon Jovi fans: it’s an ideal song for a first Sambora album.
The blues single “Stranger In This Town” sounds like something Richie had been aching to do for years. Backed by a choir of vocalists, this is Richie fulfilling some musical dreams. Both blues fans and rock fans should enjoy the middle ground where they meet on “Stranger In This Town”. As a single, it seemed to represent the image Richie was going for. This album has three singles in a row, making the first side a little more consistently strong. “Ballad of Youth” was the debut single, combining Bon Jovi’s anthemic melodies with Richie’s new laid-back vibe. It even has a Bon Jovi-like positive message. “Don’t waste your life away, thinkin’ ’bout yesterday’s blues.” The excellent third single was the synth ballad “One Light Burning” which almost sounds like Richie Sambora joined the Cars. For the programmed sounds and percussion, Richie said they had “about 100 computers” networked together. Oh, 1991! Though a ballad, it’s the centerpiece of the album.
It’s possible they intended “Mr. Bluesman” to be the centerpiece, but the lyrics are difficult to digest. When you write a song as a tribute to your hero, such as this tribute to Eric Clapton, lyrics are always the trick. Thankfully Mr. Clapton’s guest guitar appearance, though brief, does tell us the story. Hearing him rip on this blues ballad is like a searchlight cutting through the murky haze. But here’s the weird thing. Didn’t Eric find Brian May’s tribute song “Blues Breaker” embarrassing? Yet he appeared on this ballad?
“Rosie” is a Bon Jovi song that was heavily bootlegged, from the fruitful New Jersey sessions. It sounds like Bon Jovi, but Richie’s version has way more guitar. Unfortunately the Bon Jovi version has never been released. It was mysteriously not included on the Sons of Beaches demos that came out in 2014, even though the other songs were. One has to assume Jon didn’t include it on his set because Richie already had his version out. The next track “River of Love” is a title that has nothing to do with the Bon Jovi demo of the same name. This is the first and last really greasy rocker on the album.
It’s ballads from there out, but terrific songs nonetheless. “Father Time” (written with Desmond Child) is a melancholy rock ballad that Jon probably wishes he wrote. It’s a powerful song, like an amped up “One Light Burning”. Guitars burn up and down your spine while Sambora soothes your ears with his soulful croon. Tico and David provide the solid base upon which the song is built. Their expert chops are essential parts of the entire album. Things draw to a close on “The Answer”, an acoustic lullaby-like song that has a lot of heart. A sentimental ballad asking existential questions is an unconventional way to end an album, which is part of what makes it special.
Mercury did something unusual for the era, but very common today. They released Stranger In This Town as a single CD, and a 2 CD deluxe edition. The deluxe is housed in a long box, and has two bonus tracks. At the end of CD is “The Wind Cries Mary”, which saves fans from having to buy the atrocious Ford Fairlane soundtrack on which it originated. It’s a smoking Hendrix cover, and the best tune on that soundtrack. On the second CD you will find an almost 20 minute interview with Richie discussing the songs on this album. No revelations here; it’s really just an extended promo for the album. Half of it is music anyway…snippets of the same music from disc one! An OK extra, but the real bonus is “The Wind Cries Mary”.
The final extra, usually missing on the second hand market, is the metal guitar pick shaped pendant. It has Richie’s solo logo on it, but nobody’s going to be wearing this thing. All this is packed in the box, which is a beauty but awkward to store.
As an introduction of the “real” Richie to the fans, Stranger In This Town was a success. He differentiated himself from Bon Jovi, and also proved he could sing an entire album easily. Critically and commercially, the album was less successful. There were mixed reviews, with the rock press hung up on the soft songs. With the benefit of 25 years’ hindsight, Stranger has aged well, better than Bon Jovi itself.