EUROPE – Best Ballads (1999 unofficial Russian compilation)
Ah Russian imports! Those funky and cheaply printed covers, the lack of liner notes or label information…how quaint. It is clear the Tempest Administration had no collusion with anyone in Russia. Yet the Russians did hack their database and release Best Ballads anyway, a weird collection of 12 Europe songs and three solo tracks by Joey Tempest. This CD originated during the period right before Europe’s triumphant reunion album Start From the Dark, so Best Ballads only contains music from the first five Europe discs.
Because it’s unauthorized and the Russians can do whatever they want, why not have both versions of “Open Your Heart” on one CD? The sweeping 1988 version from Out of this World inaugurates the album, a brilliant version often forgotten in favour of the 1984 original. What’s the difference? John Norum played on the 1984 version from Wings of Tomorrow, and the re-recording has his replacement Kee Marcello. The 1988 version also has more modern keyboards added. Since both are included, you don’t have to pick a favourite. We can all agree it truly is one of Europe’s Best Ballads.
What else is present? The “big one” of course, which would be “Carrie”. It’s the only track from The Final Countdown, because it was the only hit ballad from that album. Other crucial Europe ballads: “Dreamer” (Wings of Tomorrow), “Coast to Coast” and “Tomorrow” (both from Out of this World). All timeless and flawless ballads. From their first album (1983’s Europe) are a couple songs I wouldn’t have considered ballads. In my review, I stated that “Words of Wisdom” has “an acoustic verse [but] that doesn’t make it a ballad!” The other track, “Return of the King”, is “still pretty epic and wouldn’t be considered wimpy by anyone”. Do they belong on a CD called Best Ballads? Who gives a fuck; it’s just a Russian import!
You’ll even find a couple rarities included. “Sweet Love Child” and “I’ll Cry For You (Acoustic version)” are both B-sides from the Prisoners in Paradise (1991) period. The title track “Prisoners in Paradise” is also present but again, not really a ballad. Either way…all the Europe tunes included are fantastic no matter how you classify them. Each one has at least a foot in ballad territory so it all works out.
But what about those Joey Tempest “bonus tracks”? Surprisingly good and un-Europe. “Under the Influence” flies close to adult contemporary levels. “Lord of the Manner” could have been a hit for Rod Stewart, but that’s not a bad thing! This is more like soft rock than balladeering. “Elsewhere” sounds more like a ballad, enhanced with strings and all the accoutrements. All good songs and worth checking out.
Europe’s Best Ballads is not a bad little CD, but being an unofficial release, it’s difficult to reason out a rating out of 5. I did the best I could.
RICHIE SAMBORA – Stranger In This Town (1991 Mercury 2 CD deluxe)
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.
So here I am, in the same place that I was 26 years ago when I first heard Out of this World, by a band I just loved: Europe. It was late August of 1988. The location is a quaint wooden cottage north of Kincardine, Ontario. I bought this album at the local records & tapes store while on summer vacation. The problem with August in Kincardine is that it was a crummy time to be on vacation. It started to get cool in late August, dark and rainy. That August was a damp one, and I have lots of memories of being in this exact same location trying to wrap my head around Europe’s then-latest.
From the first single, it was obvious to my friends and I that Europe had mellowed somewhat. It seemed odd to me that a band of Europe’s stature would release something mid-tempo and softer as a first single. But there was no questioning the quality of “Superstitious”. It remains one of Joey Tempest’s greatest compositions. This song has it all: A soulful vibe, anthemic Europe keyboards, an absolutely blazing guitar solo by Kee Marcello, and plenty of organ to go with this darker mellow vibe.
I don’t think this video did them any favors.
That considered, I expected the next song “Let the Good Times Rock” to sound more like upbeat, “old” Europe (which to me was The Final Countdown). Although it has some cool guitar hooks and fun lyrics, it’s more of a laid back dark n’ dirty grind. This furthered the feeling that Europe were softening a bit.
None of us were then aware that “Open Your Heart” was a remake of a song from 1984’s Wings of Tomorrow. Kee didn’t play on the orginal, so it’s cool to hear his take on it. Even though this song was a ballad, it was undoubtedly hit single quality. When this song failed to get any airplay here, I began to worry that Europe’s fortunes in this country were over. I could not fathom how the song had not become a massive hit. Europe were being ignored by the mainstream. It was a shame. I still think the re-recorded version is great. As I said in my review for Wings of Tomorrow, “I prefer the re-recorded version, because it includes an additional guitar part, really cool and catchy, immediately after the acoustic intro.”
“More Than Meets the Eye” has nothing to do with the Transformers, but it does consist of more dark, keyboard-oriented radio rock. It’s a very good song, but again, I was craving something more upbeat. There was still hit single potential here. “Coast to Coast” is equally good, but very soft. This is a mournful organ-backed anthem. It’s peaceful, just like this cottage by the lake. Quality-wise, this is top-notch. However we are now five songs into the A-side, without a really truly upbeat sounding rock song. The young me found this all a bit too depressing, though today I don’t mind the laid back vibes.
Then, finally! “Ready or Not”! A smoking rock song. Everything the album needed. When Joey sings, “Then rock me just a little more,” that’s exactly how I felt! Coming from Canada, I often wonder how Europe’s Swedish fans, who had been on board much longer, felt about Europe’s new musical direction.
Side B commenced with the elegant keyboards of “Sign of the Times”. The song feels highbrow, and perhaps musically it was too sophisticated for the tastes at the time. It’s an excellent song, another keyboard-drenched anthem. The shame of it is, the production (by Ron Nevison) robs the song of so much power. Some things he captures quite well, such as Mic Michaeli’s organ. Other things are weak by comparison. Kee’s lead tone sounds cold…just like this cottage used to be in late August…and the rhythm guitars are not present enough. The song could have had much more dynamics, heavy and soft, if the instruments were just recorded a little differently.
“Just the Beginning” isn’t anything special to me, a chorus without a song. This one you can skip, there are better songs to be had. “Never Say Die” is pretty good. It too lacks that upbeat feel that I’m craving on a Europe album, but it’s good enough for me. It has some great parts even if the whole isn’t all it should be. The organ and guitar solos, for example, are a lot of fun. Unfortunately “Lights and Shadows”, which follows, is just filler.
“Tower’s Callin'”, the penultimate song, is back to quality songwriting. Even though the song has a cool groove (badly recorded once again) and a killer chorus, the lyrics are completely incongruous to the mood of the music! The songs seem to be about an air disaster:
All set ready to go but little does he know He ain’t comin’ back no more, no All set ready to fly into that deep blue sky Like so many times before Now the tower’s callin’, there’s no reply And there’s nothin’ they can do Now the night is fallin’ before their eyes Still no one’s comin’ through, callin’ F12
Or am I reading this with too much 2014 perspective? Perhaps the song is supposed to be more Twilight Zone in nature, a disappearing plane?
The final track is “Tomorrow”, a Joey Tempest piano piece that once again has to be one of his best compositions. It does close the album on a sad, rainy note…much like that August in ’88.
It’s obvious that I can’t separate my listening to Out of this World from feelings of nostalgia. For that reason, take my rating with a grain of salt. Although many may feel differently, I like this album. It has a weaker second side and way too many ballads, but Ron Nevison robbed the guitars of their thunder. The songwriting shines through on many tracks, as does the talent of the players. For those reasons:
EUROPE – Rock the Night: The Very Best of Europe (2004)
Europe’s successful reunion was one of the most unexpected of the last decade, but thus far four awesome studio albums have been the result. A tougher more rock-oriented Europe emerged with Start From The Dark, but not before this appropriate retrospective was released. Containing music from the first era of Europe, from their debut album to their fifth, Prisoners In Paradise, this compilation is the ideal summary of the 80’s and 90’s era of the band.
All the casual fans need to know is that all the hits are here, in their original studio versions: “The Final Countdown”, “Cherokee”, “Superstitious”, “Carrie”, and the title track. That’s enough to make this worth buying for many. But also included are great lesser known tracks, many of which were also singles: “Open Your Heart” (the original version from Wings of Tomorrow), “Dreamer”, “Sign Of The Times”, “Heart of Stone”, “The King Will Return”, and many more. Two of my personal favourites are included: The rhythmically powerful “Girl From Lebanon” and the pop yet inspiring “Prisoners In Paradise”.
The diehards are also baited with B-sides and rare tracks. Many of these such as “On Broken Wings” and “Mr. Government Man” have since been issued on Europe remasters and other compilations, but there were a couple I never had before: live takes of “Time Has Come” and “Let The Good Times Rock” from the 1980’s. There’s also a studio track that I’m unfamiliar with called “Here Comes the Night”. This appears to be from the Prisoners In Paradise sessions, previously unreleased, and it’s a decent track. Best for me was a later B-side version of “Seven Doors Hotel”, with Joey Tempest enunciating a lot more clearly.
For my personal tastes, I didn’t like Prisoners In Paradise much. I found it overproduced and way too commercial and American-sounding. Europe were always much more European sounding, like a more radio-friendly Deep Purple or UFO. So there are too many tracks here from Prisoners for me, including a few that I just hate: “Got Your Mind In The Gutter” (dull blooze-rock) and “Seventh Sign” are not that great. But, it is what it is. I preferred a lot of the songs from Out Of This World and previous albums. I would have preferred to hear “Tomorrow”, “Ninja”, or “Paradize Bay”.
But hey, it’s two CDs of Europe, right? And Europe were and are a good band. In North America, I don’t think they ever got any respect. They are remembered here for the big hair, and the big anthem. That’s too bad. As this collection demonstrates, Europe had a lot more to offer then. There are ballads indeed, but there is also mighty heavy metal, many grand melodies, and hard rock performed with precision.