Riverdogs - Riverdogs (1990)
Submitted by Dinosaur David B on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 23:02
Riverdogs is a great example of what the Musical Appreciation section of the site is supposed to be about. Calling attention to an overlooked gem of an album. You had to be paying close attention (probably to Viv Campbell's career) at the time this band and album debuted, 'cause if you blinked, you missed it! And unfortunately, even if you scour your local used CD stores, and likely Internet sources, it ain't gonna be easy to track down a copy of Riverdogs now. But if this review captures your interest, maybe you'll keep an eye out for it.
I don't have a lot of background info on the history of Riverdogs. Suffice it to say that the songs were the brainchild of a very talented singer/songwriter named Rob Lamothe. He was virtually unknown before the release of this album, and as good as the album is, the name Lamothe will still get you far more blank stares than smiles of recognition. What finally called some attention to Lamothe's music was his teaming up with young, heavy metal guitar wiz, Vivian Campbell, a guitarist who came to prominence as the original guitarist in the band Dio, and one half of John Sykes' replacement in Whitesnake. Campbell had the name and the chops. Lamothe had a bunch of excellent songs and a deep, gravely rock voice along the lines of Sammy Hagar and Kelly Keeling. The union produced an album rich in song quality, lyrical theme, and guitar work. And an album that defies labeling. I don't think I'd call it metal or even hard rock, but it contains a lot of the elements and dynamics of both genres, as well as others. And while Campbell didn't have a huge role in the songwriting (he's credited on only 4 of 10 tracks) Riverdogs contains what is arguably Campbell's best guitar work. Here we find a more mature guitarist than the kid we remember from Dio. He's still flashy when the song calls for flash, but when it doesn't, Viv is tasty. He lets the music breath and doesn't overplay. When he cuts loose, there is more elasticity in his playing than I remember in Dio. His tone is still rock-metal, but it's smoother, and further back in the mix than it was in Dio. This is done, in part because most of these songs feature a strummed acoustic guitar in the mix as well. In fact, Lamothe almost certainly wrote these songs on acoustic guitar.
Another interesting item is that most of these songs follow the same compositional formula. Note the similarity in the length of the songs — all but one are four minutes and change. In most cases, the structure is as follows: Intro: Electric, authoritative. Verse part one: acoustic and airy with sparse bass and drums — emphasis on lead vocals. Verse part two: beefed up with electric guitar, everything getting louder than part one, building toward a big chorus. Chorus: big, heavy, anthematic. Guitar solo 1: quick and tasty. Verse and chorus repeat. Guitar solo 2. Bridge: (sometimes before the solo) usually takes the dynamic back down to soft. Outro: Repeating chorus vamp. End: often takes the dynamic back down to soft. Sometimes a nod to the intro. It's a classic formula, and as prevalent as it is here, the musicianship, vocals, and lyrics are so strong that these songs work very well.
If you can find a copy of Riverdogs, you're in for a treat. You'll hear a truly gifted songwriter and lyricist combined with a guitar virtuoso who understands when to go for it, and when to stay out of the way. The songs are textbook examples of classic song composition, and great use of dynamics. Within each song, the mood often shifts between the major, the minor, and the blues scale feel, far more frequently than is common in hard rock and metal. All of these factors combine to make an album that is always a breath of fresh air when I hear it, and one that never sounds dated. Let's listen.
Track By Track (vocal cues in parentheses)
Whisper (4:41) Starts out with bass, drums and some electric guitar noodling: volume swells and harmonics. Airy but ominous feeling intro. Verse part one kicks in hard, with a minor, descending power chord figure and some wah guitar. Lamothe's voice is low and soulful. Verse part two (Lord, I'm a poor man . . ) builds tension on the descending minor theme, but it's an alternate part with busier guitar and a more impassioned vocal. Chorus changes the mood completely by switching to a major scale feel, and then returns to minor just before the second verse. Verse and chorus repeat before the solos section over the verse part. Campbell takes his time and builds a bluesy solo. Double stops, octave runs, some wahed blues licks, and a fast, flashy crescendo to wrap it up. Solo runs into the bridge. Sparse bridge, (You had to tear my heart out. . . ) similar to the intro, hammers back into the big, major-feel chorus. Outro gives Viv a chance to cut loose and nice outro solo. Blues licks including some major pentatonic stuff. Nice song.
Toy Soldier (3:23) This song begins with a quick, Lizzy-style electric guitar harmony part that leads into the sparse verse of bass, drums, acoustic rhythm guitar that's designed to give emphasis to the lyrics. You begin to see that Lamothe is a master of the double-entendre lyric: (There's a hole in my pocket, where my only hope for change keeps falling through, and scatters at my feet just like the rest of my life). Good stuff! The electric harmonies return to provide the turnaround at the end of the verses.
Big House (4:03) Slow ballad type. Minor feel. Again, (chorused) electric guitar intro, acoustic verse. Viv's playing with some harmonics under the acoustic strumming. Again, quiet verse, big chorus. Another lyrical double-entendre on the chorus: (I am bound to you like steel is bound to rust.) Short, slow, melodic guitar solo after first chorus. Verse and chorus repeat. Bridge enters with a major scale feel, then finished up minor again. Interesting guitar solo: starts with some noodling and effects, then some quick picking on an ascending figure of octaves, a touch of slide and some bluesy licks. Back into the big chorus which repeats as the outro. Song ends sort of abruptly.
Holy War (4:22) Good example of a song that gets bigger and louder as it progresses. Acoustic intro this time, electric chimes in with a similar part. On verse part one, there's a Mellencamp Pink Houses (and major scale) feel. Verse part two builds and ups the ante with power chords and electric guitar, but it's still deep in the mix. (Someday soon, this will all be yours). Chorus hits, and is very heavy rock, ballsy and electric. Verse and chorus repeat. Solo section. Viv's rips a nice flash metal solo here, but it's composed, purposeful: He gets in, shoots his load and gets out. Song picks up again with the heavy verse part and back into the choruses to hammer it home. An intro-like part returns the song to a major feel for the end, which is kind of odd, because they'd been going all-out heavy for a while. It works, though. (Hear it!)
Baby Blue (4:36) Power ballad. Nice, but quick electric lead intro, leaves you wanting more. Another sparse verse; mostly bass, drums, and vocal. Big, power chorus with a major feel. Guitar solo after first chorus. Tasty, elastic, and good attitude in it. Verse and chorus again. Solo two gives Viv a chance to stretch out a bit. Again, a composed and well thought-out solo. Big on melody and feel. Not much flash, but I sense utter control in his playing. Very nice work. Choruses on the fade out with some melodic, major pentatonic lead noodling underneath. (Hear it!)
I Believe (4:21) This one was written by Viv on electric and is based on a riff, rather than folk chord progressions. Mid tempo rocker. Verse part one breathes with stop/start guitar parts under the vocals. On verse part two, the guitar part goes to a double-time feel which propels the song. Simple, three chord chorus (I be-lieve) Quick raucous, bluesy guitar solo and licks under the subsequent verse and chorus. Second, longer solo, first over a blues progression, then over a major feel part. Viv's playing is more metal here. Some good, old-fashioned wanking in this one — in the background of the chorus during the fadeout. Again, lots of major pentatonic.
Water from the Moon (4:41) Another one written on electric. Minor feel again. Intro is muted minor arpeggios over root powerchords. As the verse part one begins, the guitar switches to clean, quiet arpeggios to stay out of the way of the vocals. On verse part two, the muted arpeggios return, building the tension. Metal style chorus. A quick flash solo. Verse and chorus repeat. Bridge has a quick, ascending part then a descending quieter part that begins building to set you up for a ballsy solo. Viv kicks off with some whammy bar work and some blues licks, followed by some Brad Gillis-type Floyd wanks and some melodic flash licks. His tone on this one seems thicker than elsewhere on the album. Again, the song uses the big choruses to hammer out the ending, then goes quiet just before it ends.
Rain Rain (4:34) Mid tempo rocker. Minor feel again. Slightly longer intro this time, with both clean and crunch guitar parts, but the formula remains the same: loud intro, followed by quiet verse to emphasize the vocal. Verse part slowly builds in power and volume that leads to a big chorus that releases the tension. No post-1st chorus solo this time. Second verse begins the process again. Real nice tasty solo by Viv on this one. Starts slow and melodic, gets fast and bluesy, builds to a crescendo at the end. Lots of outro flash noodling in the fadeout.
Spooky (4:52) This song has a sort of Bon-Jovi feel to it, even down to the sneering vocal delivery. Big electric intro. Verse starts quiet and build toward a big, ascending, power chord chorus. Lots of dynamics: song goes back and forth between quiet and loud. Viv's playing mostly flash fills and such until the guitar solo. First part of the solo is melodic line that reminds me of Gary Moore (who was Campbell's biggest influence at that time). Then into a melodic twin guitar harmony part, then some blues and flash licks that are also reminiscent of Gary Moore (back in the good old days). Repeating chorus outro with more Viv doing Gary on top of it.
America (4:15) Big power ballad. Quick metal guitar intro, followed by folksy, acoustic verse. Again, it's got that Mellencamp/Bon-Jovi feel in until the big, metal guitars come in. Good use of dynamics again alternating between soft and loud. Viv's sounding more like himself on this solo. Goes from some flash to melodic, with the emphasis on feeling.
According to a sparse, and very infrequently-updated Lamothe/Riverdogs website, the Riverdogs released an official live album, and acoustic unplugged CD shortly after this debut album. Apparently these are extremely rare and hard-to-find. Campbell left the group shortly afterward to join Def Leppard, a band that doesn't let him rip, but pays him a salary and only asks him to work once a decade. The Riverdogs carried on for a while with Nick Brophy on guitar instead of bass. They cut two or three albums. Rob Lamothe continues to record (excellent, I'm told) solo albums, but my understanding is that they're of the acoustic, singer/songwriter genre. Aparently the band DID reunite in Feb 2000, but it's hard to tell if anything came of it. They supposedly created new music — I don't know if that means they actually recorded it. Too bad. It was a good band. For more info on Riverdogs news or reunion plans, the site Team Riverdogs seems to be the best source.
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By Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2001 All rights reserved.
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