Over the years, Rob Lamothe has explored different musical avenues. Although best known to rock fans as the frontman with Riverdogs back in the 90s, his sometimes overlooked solo career has taken in elements of thoughtful singer-songwriter moods (‘Gravity’), acoustic sounds (‘Wishing Well Motel’), hints of Americana (‘Long Lazy Curve’) and even blues (‘Shine’, recorded with Craig Erickson). Since Lamothe is clearly able to turn his hand to anything and his solo career continually looked forward, his decision to record a brand new Riverdogs album in 2017 came as a surprise. However, ‘California’ was well received, even if the material sometimes felt like a massive step backwards.
…And its those who loved ‘California’ who’ll have the most to gain from this Cross Country Driver album, even though it’s more varied from a musical standpoint. Over two years in the making, and with with various musical friends invited along for the journey, it often plays like a huge recap of Rob’s rocky side. According to Riverdogs/Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell, “nobody makes records like this any more”. That’s some admirable hype from one of Lamothe’s long time friends, since about a quarter of the Frontiers Records roster are busy attempting to make albums like this. In fairness to Viv, though, aside from Tommy’s Rocktrip, few have managed anything quite so accomplished, or shamelessly celebratory from an old-school standpoint.
On tracks like ‘I Won’t Look Back’ and ‘Shine’, Rob and the band go for broke in the rockier stakes. ‘I Won’t Look Back’ shows off a great blend of solid rock and blues tones, which is obviously a fine vehicle for a man with such a roots-edged and malleable voice. As expected, Rob can be heard at full stretch – and it doesn’t even sound like he’s breaking a sweat. Although the music values a heavy-ish sound, there’s also a hint of extra richness when guitarist James Harper is bolstered by an extra layer of melody, before taking a detour into an acoustic interlude, courtesy of Rob. It’s a good track from the off, but really comes into its own during the second half when guest musician dUg Pinnick (King’s X) makes his presence felt via a forceful second vocal and further amplified bass sound. You’ll find better tracks on ‘The New Truth’, but in showcasing talented musicians caught in a great jam, it’s an enjoyable listen to say the least. ‘Shine’ is okay, but by comparison is more basic and hampered by both a really trebly sound and a horribly crashy drum part from Mike Mangini. In the old days, it would have been second tier Riverdogs material – there’s far too much reliance on volume over melody – but even then, Rob’s voice carries everything well enough to make it just about work.
Pinnick also takes the role of special guest on ‘A Man With No Direction’, an enjoyable funky rocker that takes the heart of 70s blues rock and transplants it somewhere in the mid 90s. This allows dUg ample opportunity to work a deep bass groove throughout, whilst Rob appears to relish every moment he gets at the mic, whether stretching to a full rock croon or harmonising with Pinnick. It’s a little predictable, musically speaking, but there’s certainly no doubt that the assembled musicians are having a good time. Also, if heard in close proximity to ‘Shine’, it automatically sounds much better than it is. ‘Off The Rails’, meanwhile, does an even better job of injecting a funk-ish groove into some heady blues rock. Loaded with harmony vocals and a guitar tone that would make Stevie Ray Vaughan proud (easily one of Harper’s best moments on this disc), the number cranks through some classic riffs, before taking an unexpected detour where wibbly synths and treated vocals flesh out a strange middle eight. Returning to the main riff, the band sound more assured, and Zander Lamothe can be heard indulging in a superb drum fill or three that suggests an arrangement that would have a huge amount of punch if played live. Despite largely being made from some tried and tested elements, this is a superb track; one of the best examples of the Cross Country Driver sound.
An instant standout, ‘Long Gone’ serves up a blues tinged rocker where deep, funky basses and chunky riffs call back to the early works of Stevie Salas. Adding to the soulful element, the melody is peppered by some brilliant swirling organ, a wave of jazzy brass (something that will automatically make almost anything better), and a harmony vocal that sounds like something culled from an early King’s X record. With a huge groove quickly taking hold, it gives Rob a great platform to deliver a great vocal, and with Harper finding time for a couple of superb lead guitar moments along the way and ex-Badlands bassist dropping some bottom end against elements that sound like a classic clavichord groove, this quickly becomes the album’s tightest tune. The way ‘Wild Child’ applies a semi-bluesy guitar solo to a rocky backdrop and even finds time for a Spanish guitar interlude suggests something drawing from the breadth of Rob’s musical interests, even before taking a dogleg for a much heavier riff at the end. Also along the way, you’ll encounter a riff that sounds as if it’s desperate to fall into Bon Jovi’s classic ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’, some great drum work from Zander Lamothe, a dirty guitar part that teases with a vaguely alternative sound, and a few harmonies buried beneath the heaviness. In terms of presenting Lamothe in full rock mode, it works brilliantly, despite its kitchen sink approach.
More melodic in places, ‘So Fly’ is a frustrating mixed bag. It manages to blend a few 90s singer-songwriter influences into a great verse where a warm bass underscores a smooth vocal, before presenting a brilliant Zeppelin-ish pre-chorus. There’s so much to like here before the track goes off the rails for a less inspiring main hook. The harder edged music is fine for what it is; it’s merely the fact that the chorus sounds as if it were written for a different song that offsets everything. That chorus also seems to be dominated by an unexpected (and unnecessary) f-bomb, which really doesn’t endear it. Nevertheless, a few harmony driven moments and an excellent guitar duel between Lamothe and Jim Hoke creates a worthy climax. It’s definitely one of the album’s slow burners, but even this weaker link shows off this band to be rather talented.
For those hoping for an acoustic moment or two, ‘Risen’ supplies the goods with a gentle, finger picked melody, topped by a multi-layered vocal. This eventually drops into a slow, rootsy rocker where any electric guitar work is more of the Americana mould, and organ swirls occasionally make the track seem reminiscent of a gentler number from the Tedeschi Trucks Band. There are a couple of moments where the rock background is a little too evident – mainly through a drum sound that’s a little too loud, and a hint of guitar that seems too keen to steer everything back to the Riverdogs’ work – but it is a fabulously written number that, in many ways, is more sophisticated than the bulk of this album. Going a little deeper into the Americana vibe with an acoustic core, ‘Real Love’ could be an overspill from ‘Long Lazy Curve’. In lots of ways, Lamothe is in far more of a comfort zone, but his voice is at his best here this time out, and the presence of rootsy guitar and bar-room piano fills gives an instantly familiar sound a timeless quality. Some listeners might find it a little slight when measured against the rest of the record, but in terms of playing, it’s another winner.
Nearing the journey’s end, the slower ‘Everything Forgiven’ makes good use of vocal filters over a tune that applies a light psychedelia to a semi-bluesy rock ballad. Its arrangement almost taps into a hazy mid 90s sound; a world where the sounds of the more sedate Riverdogs are coloured with a post-grunge vibe. It’s nice to hear “retro” served in a way that isn’t just a quick Hendrix knock off, or an obvious love letter to the late 80s big haired scene. There’s plenty about this track that’s prime Lamothe, too; even the floatier vocal carries a further unexpected hint of his solo work, and with Harper applying some more sedate sounds, it really shows how Cross Country Driver are capable of a broad spectrum of styles.
Although fans of Rob’s more reflective, acoustic-based solo work might be disappointed that he’s taken such a strong hard rock/blues rock route here, the good far outweighs the bad on this release, and whichever musical road ‘The New Truth’ takes, his brilliant, sometimes smoky voice remains unmistakable. This is an album that’ll take a few plays to reveal its best tracks, but when the pieces fit, it’s the kind of listen that sounds better each time. It isn’t a perfect record (‘Shine’ more than sees to that), but is recommended listening for melodic/classic/blues rock fans everywhere.