Monday, June 14, 2010

Blues tricks are best on Mojo, new disc from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

It's been well over 30 years since "American Girl" and "Breakdown" kicked off a giant catalog of memorable songs for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It's hard not to associate the veteran band with epic videos like "Don't Come Around Here No More" and chart-toppers like "Runnin' Down a Dream" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Will tomorrow's release of the Heartbreakers' studio album No. 12, Mojo, add to that list of memorable songs?

To this reviewer, it already has. Watching their "Saturday Night Live" performance in May has gotten both songs on permanent repeat in my head ever since. And there's more on the disc where those came from.

One constant throughout much of this album is that it wears its influences on its sleeve. Obvious from Steve Ferrone's drum entrance in "I Should Have Known It" is distinct inspiration from John Bonham. It was his style, perfected on "When the Levee Breaks" and "Kashmir" among others, to lay down a plodding and authoritative rhythm to support a guitar riff. Yet this method has also been the domain of numerous Bonham imitators, heard on AC/DC's "Back in Black" and Whitesnake's "Still of the Night." Thus, Billy Squier's "Lonely is the Night" seems to be the biggest direct influence on Petty and the Heartbreakers here, especially in terms of song structure. Note the reprise of the riff in double-time rocking out at the end of the song: That's totally Squier territory.

Petty's always been quite the visible frontman, so much to the point that he essentially "pulled a Robert Plant" in ensuring he wasn't the center of attention when he recently reunited his pre-fame mid-'70s band Mudcrutch; Plant had done the same thing when forming Priory of Brion. It turns out Petty has always surrounded himself with fine musicians. In the case of his main touring and recording unit, it was only with last year's release of the Heartbreakers' 4-CD Live Anthology (at a very reasonable price, too) that I came to find out just how good they are live: long, dramatic instrumental passages and great cover songs.

The Heartbreakers lineup really shines on this disc, especially lead guitarist Mike Campbell and all-round keyboard hand Benmont Tench. If you're thinking Campbell's sound tilts toward Jimmy Page, that could be because he's preferring a 1959 Les Paul sunburst for 13 of the 15 tracks. It could also be because Campbell's playing is often pretty darn good. We're told the band recorded everything live in the studio, and the disc liner notes even include the recording dates of each track -- nifty!

"Jefferson Jericho Blues" sounds like it could have been included on a Yardbirds album. This perception is helped by the Keith Relf-like harmonica tones of Scott Thurston, but it's mostly because the feel of the song is a combination of the Clapton-era "Honey in Your Hips" and the Page-era "Drinking Muddy Water." Yet, again, influences can be deceiving. It's probably most inspired by a cut from Cream's first album, "Cat's Squirrel," and there's even a guitar line that's been lifted from it -- see if you can pick it out. (Note that "Cat's Squirrel" is a song that's even been excerpted by Led Zeppelin in live performances.)

As for the rest of Mojo, some of the highlights are in the tracks steeped in the blues, but there are also a few standout tracks that don't have much to do with the blues.

  • If the title of "U.S. 41" suggests to you it's going to be a blues track, good assumption. It has Petty playing an acoustic guitar and singing the blues with some flange effect on his vocals. Campbell gives his Les Paul a rest and contributes some fine slide licks on a Jimmy Reed model guitar while Thurston's blowing away on that harp.
  • On the disc, it leads nicely into the creeping blues of "Takin' My Time." On the verses, the lead guitar sounds like it's been processed with Clapton's Cream-era "woman tone" fuzz sound. It's straight out of that kind of blues.
  • "First Flash of Freedom" is one track with some potential for being a memorable song, with a subtle vocal boosted by some fine accompaniment reminiscent of the old Allman Brothers Band chestnut "Dreams." The track is book-ended by some dueling guitar passages that would make Blue Öyster Cult blush.
  • "Candy" sounds it could have been written by J.J. Cale, and if the song had existed in the '70s then it would already be just as famous as "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" -- or Clapton's own Cale approximation, "Lay Down Sally."
  • "Don't Pull Me Over" is a reggae tune with an underlying advocacy for marijuana legalization, but it's not aimed at being the new anthem for stoner kids. It's actually the anthem for stoner moms and dads. Figure that one out.
  • "The Trip to Pirate's Cove" is a narrative in the style of past Heartbreakers hits, with the vocals at the forefront but trading off against Campbell's guitar. Tench's electric piano is an understated highlight on the track.
  • Petty plays the downtrodden Mr. Pitiful well in his songs, like on the album closer "Good Enough," the high point of which is some deeply soulful lead guitar playing over a slow 6/8 minor blues with a riff that could have been written just after listening to the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."
The high points are scattered evenly throughout the disc. One nice feature about it is the technique of running all the songs together without gaps in between. The first 14 songs don't have any room to breathe before the next one kicks in, and they've done a fine job of ordering them for listening pleasure. The album's so good that I've tried playing it on repeat just so the last song can also have something follow it up. It works that way too. You may not be singing any of these songs for as long as you've been belting out "Learning to Fly" or "The Waiting," but you sure won't be disappointed when you hear these make the rotation in the Heartbreakers' live show this year.

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