First Published in Pressplus1 Online Magazine: http://www.pressplus1.com/blog/evan+dowbiggin/2219-cd-review-mojo-by-tom-petty-the-heartbreakers-a-band-as-tight-as-ever-displays-some-blistering-heavy-blues-crunch.html
Tom Petty, often with his backing group the Heartbreakers, has already established himself as a classic rock mainstay, though he has still found interest with albums that have reflected on the aging stage of life. Unlike most of his contemporaries and influences, Petty still manages to get what he wants to say across to a large, receptive audience. He has been a mellower Southeast American version of Neil Young, as evidenced by his three official solo LPs Full Moon Fever(1989), Wildflower (1994) and Highway Companion (2006). Only enough, the former two provide the bulk of his radio staples today. You can't listen to any classic rock station for a while without hearing "You Don't Know How it Feels" (aka "Roll Another Joint" according to stoner enthusiasts), "It's Good to Be King," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin," "Runnin Down a Dream," or "Yer So Bad." But Petty has seemed more cool, easy going and hip in the past 20 years than the previous 15 where his material was very much aggressive, yet more mainstream rock, even if it might have enamoured many with its new wave sensibilities.
Petty made his bread off of being able to incorporate pop hooks into the mixture, speaking to the kids of middle America who grew up in small cities or towns. His influences rooted in 60s giants like the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, Petty's pre-Full Moon Fever work was buoyant, restless rock with Hammond organs, power chord guitars and twangy, hollered vocals from a youthful sounding (and looking) Petty. As far as pure 60s/70s styled rock craft goes, not much can top "American Girl," "Breakdown," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Refugee," "Even the Losers," "The Waiting," "Change of Heart" or "Rebels." With Full Moon Fever, he settled into a more well-known stage of his career, as a laid back sort of Bob Dylan prototype, complete with drawling, droning voice and a middle-aged hippie soul. At the same time, his music videos received heavy MTV rotation as, unlike many 70s counterparts, he found a way to transition into the new decade without losing a step or looking out of touch or out of place.
Did his stint in the Traveling Wilburies lead to this settling down? Perhaps, but the gentler, folky side of Petty had been hinted at somewhat on the rather overlooked 1987 effort Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) and even on Southern Accents from 1985. When he made his triumphant break from the Heartbreakers, if only temporarily, Petty was coming off a few albums that didn't live up to the expectations of his earlier ones, plus a close call with a fire that gutted much of his Los Angeles home and his family barely escaped (later it was found to be arson but no culprit could be tracked down so Petty had his house rebuilt with fireproof materials). 1987-88 wasn't the happiest of times, however the Wilburies gig and bandmate Jeff Lynne producing Full Moon Fever turned it around. Since then, Tom has had little trouble with selling out arenas or charting in the top 20 with his albums.
At the heart of Mr. Petty is a Southern boy, but from the heart of the gator-swamp Florida, Gainesville to be specific. Already put on the rock map by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the title of Gainseville's best export was nearly rivalled by Petty's original band Mudcrutch but for various reasons that outfit never made it big. In fact Petty, having spent recent years revisiting his past via a coffee book autobiography and a Pete Bogdanovich directed documentary, both called Runnin' Down a Dream, organized a reunion of Mudcrutch in 2008. Mudcrutch had been more blues-flavoured than Petty and the Heartbreakers but eventually broke up in 1975, leaving Petty, longtime collaborator and lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench to form the Heartbreakers out of its ashes along with fellow Gainesvillians Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums). Blair is once more the Heartbreakers' bassist today, having replaced his own 1982 replacement Howie Epstein, who tragically let his demons overcome him when he died of a heroin overdose in 2003, a year after being sacked from the group.
Meanwhile, Lynch would be replaced after his acrimonious departure in 1994 by Steve Ferrone while Scott Thurston became a sixth member around 1991-92, supplying guitar, keyboards, harmonica and harmony vocals over the years. This lineup survives to this day, having worked on 1991's Into the Great Wide Open, the new recordings for 1993's platinum-selling Greatest Hits, the 1996 soundtrack to the film She's the One, 1999's Echo and 2002's The Last DJ. Petty's railing against the music industry for putting its direction in the hands of bimbo teenage pop, visual glitziness and homogenizing radio playlists everywhere. Since then we've gotten Highway Companion and 2008's self-titled Mudcrutch, from their mentioned reunion. But in name, the Heartbreakers have returned from a seven year itch for the grittiest, greasiest showcase of low-down, cosmic blues rock Petty has ever unleashed. It took nearly 4 decades but we've finally got a raw, natural sound out of the band, the songs being mostly recorded without overdubs and done in Petty's rehearsal space. These days he seems in fine form, as vibrant as he has sounded in years and his voice clearer and sharper than in years, likely due to Petty cutting back on his smoking habit.
After the Mudcrutch experience, Petty was looking to capture a raw live band in the studio, free of overdubs and jamming and playing songs like they were still limbering up in rehearsal. That is all achieved quite faithfully by Mojo, a fitting title since so many tunes by the captivating bluesmen of the past referred to getting that "mojo" working or coming into possession with one of those famed "mojo hands" (in voodoo lore, a magic bag of good luck charms). Petty has stated that the album is similar to the Allman Brothers Band, but not so much in the songs as in the jam-heavy, loose atmosphere of white Southern dudes playing around with electric guitars and organs. This album also gives listeners a chance to hear his eternal sideman Mike Campbell flash his chops a little more than usual. Good thing too, since for too long Campbell has been one of the more overlooked and underrated guitarists of the 70s and 80s and onward. He's all over the premier track on Mojo is the chugging "Jefferson Jericho Blues." It features dirty old blues harp from Thurston and sounds eerily like the bastard child of Bob Dylan's 1966 cut "Obviously 5 Believers."
Thurston's harp and Campbell's guitar combine for a harmonizing solo that kicks right into a hot solo by Campbell on his own. There's nothing too original or groundbreaking about this lead track, but it sure as hell gets toes a tapping. Petty's voice is a bit too nasal and whiny to sing the blues, but that's my only real complaint here. Much less ingrained in Chicago blues, but still similar to those Allmans, is "First Flash of Freedom," an exalted piece that echoes the darker Petty music of his 1976-81 classic period. Benmont Tench's B3 Hammond organ is omni-present, though a few flourishes can be heard outside the standard comping. "First Flash" is a bit like Hendrix in its acid-washed, guitar lathering plus the intro and outro chord progression. Also, it grooves mellowly like a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young composition, yet excites more, featuring Campbell's expressive leads and plenty of wah-wah and guitar interplay that's just missing from most rock records today, let alone ones by classic, middle-aged artists. This is also one of three tracks on this 15 track album that was co-written by the oft-dreadlocked Campbell. Mojo keeps on trucking as easily the most guitar geared album in Petty's catalogue on the smoky jam, "Running Man's Bible."
"The Trip to Pirates' Cove" follows in another sedate mood, with electric piano from Tench not unlike the playing heard on the Doors' "Riders on the Storm". A distant, echo effect employed at the end of each line sung by Petty could have been a laughably misplaced modern trick, but instead it just enchances the mystical aura of the recording. "Candy" is a tight, relaxed boogie that is less of the Allman Bros. vein and more of an early ZZ top one, with Campbell supplying funky slide guitar. Its arrangement saves what's pretty much the first filler tune on the album, a variation on the blues repeat verse, 12-bar blues form with Petty informing us on how he likes candy, but won't "go for them turnip greens." If you're going to have a rather ordinary cut, at least make it different- as in a little goofy and witty right? Check marks all go up for those requirements on "Candy." A little more wisdom and melancholy steps into the circle on Mojo for the memorable "No Reason to Cry," one of Petty's best ballads in years. Campbell's slide is augmented by some pedal steel guitar too, supplying mournful country touches that make one recall a little of Petty's dear departed Wilbury friend George Harrison.
Things swing back toward bad ass for the Zeppelin-esque stomper "I Should Have Known it," a fierce showing that could give any White Stripes, Black Keys, Kasian or Wolfmother a good run for their youthful money. There's even a double time shift halfway through to really get the blood pumping. It's quite possible that Petty & the Heartbreakers haven't sounded so vital, so hard and raw, perhaps ever. There's no melodic medal of honour for this one, like "Free Fallin'" or "Refugee" but "I Should Have Known it" makes up for that on piledriving riffs alone! And what a surprise, sharing credit is the always dependable Campbell, a co-writer and/or producer of several other noteworthy songs and bands in his career. You feel like you're touring the backwoods down South for "U.S. 41," a dead ringer for Muddy Waters, with Petty's best vocal track of the album perhaps. It tells stories centred around the highway in question, sort of Petty's own "Highway 61 Revisited" or "Highway 51."
There's even a character referenced as Lucky, and maybe that was an intentional nod to his voiceover role as dimwitted hillbilly Elroy "Lucky" Kleinschmidt on the animated series King of the Hill. He even uses some of Lucky's drawl when singing the tune, so it often makes me think we're hearing about events that could've taken place in and around fictional Arlen, Texas. With "Takin' My Time," the wah-pedals and harp are broken out once more. But thankfully, it's hardly your average heaping of blues as the arrangement is built off of several rhythm changes, though it's mostly done in a thumping, bolero-styled march. More of a tight rehearsal than a substantively creative songwriting piece is "Let Yourself Go," which seems more than any other track to be a chance for all the members to show off their solo chops. If you are aware of his history with Mudcrutch, you'll know that the only thing they got nationally released was a reggae-ish single produced by Denny Cordell called "Depot Street." Since Petty isn't one to resist reggae- he even sings like he's Jamaican on 1976's "Breakdown"- you won't be too taken aback by "Don't Pull Me Over," a bit of social commentary as it's sung from the view of a man who begs the cops not to pull him over or arrest him because of the family that so desperately depends on what he earns.
Of course, we learn in the final verse of "Don't Pull Me Over" that the beleaguered poor man is trafficking marijuana ("should be legalized" the man assets, though no doubt a figure like Petty- often pigeonholded as an old hippie-dippy stoner- feels the same way). Musically, Campbell is the star as usual while Tench's choice of electric piano is a wise one since organ was getting overly familiar by this point, at least for me. A jazzier blues is represented with "Lover's Touch." It's atmospherically intriguing, but one of the weaker inclusions on Mojo nonetheless. It's a bit more funky in the room with "High in the Morning," perhaps a cautionary drug tale, something Petty could sing about from experience I'm sure, though mainly from the tragic decline and death of Howie Epstein- possibly in mind when the song was written. Stepping outside the box is "Something Good Coming," composed in 3/4 time and exploring more sentimental ground by discussing family life. Petty sings of disappointments and hardships but keeps insisting about that "something good coming" in the chorus. It reflects the track his life has taken since a late 90s divorce forced to him to re-examine things and threw him into a depressed, hermit-like existence for several months in 1999-2000. Whether or not written about his real-life second wife doesn't really matter.
The heart-on-the-sleeve expression of "Something Good Coming" is warm and eye-opening. Petty gets more personal than we're used to hearing by declaring he's "In for the long haul" and that "Work's all I've ever known." By this he's probably admitting his dogged life's work toward being a rock star and keeping that gravy train going sidetracked him from his duty to his wife and kids a little bit. But I suppose he's pledging he's changed and improved in that respect. So I guess though we can't expect any long sabbaticals from music to come from Tom, he's old and wise enough to know better now. In recent years he has made clear his aversion to doing worldwide tours for every album like he used to. The final number is "Good Enough." It tries to be like classic sinister Petty, his own version of John Fogerty doing the voodoo blues in his Creedence Clearwater Revival days. That, by now, isn't anything unexpected or revitalizing for Mojo but Petty again makes it worth your while. It's really welcome that there's a middle eighth that throws in the heavy power chords and drums with Petty hollering about the woman he sees as "Good enough for me!/Good enough for right now!"
With its slow tempo, jagged chord changes and chromatic riffs, "Good Enough" is the loopiest arrangement on Mojo and finishes it off with a curveball as one of the more melodically inventive songs he's done in years. Campbell's guitar playing seems to leap out of its usual controlled tone and go for raw power, emotion and volume. The album practically climaxes right as it ends with an instrumental outro not unlike the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," only not even half as long thankfully. And again, Campbell contributes a co-credit writing. No surprise since every time he collaborates with Petty, it generates a special quality of sorts.
When it comes down to it, Mojo never disappoints you. Its peaks are numerous, its valleys infrequent. After all, when an album builds your expectations up after its first several cuts, you start wanting more of it and often you don't get that. And at 15 songs, you'd expect that with Mojo. But no. This CD always pulls out a surprise when you least expect it. It's an encouraging display from a man who by sheer longevity, determination and artistic but down-to-earth honesty has managed to cement his place as a living legend in rock.
Rating: 4/5 stars (A-)