Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Mojo


RIYL: Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, aging white dudes who like to toke up

Mojo is the strongest set of songs from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in over a decade and a half. Ever since “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the singer and the band have tried time and again to come up with a classic album that meets the standards of their earlier work. As the band has aged into one of the stalwarts of rock and roll, they have produced music that may be biting in the lyrics, but musically and production-wise lacked a certain edge.

During the Heartbreakers rise to success in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a danger in their music, perhaps because the band members were constantly at each other’s throats. Hostility brewed beneath the surface, from the fights between Petty and former drummer Stan Lynch, to the drugs and alcohol that affected the lives of bassist Howie Epstein and keyboardist Benmont Tench. At one point, Petty punched his fist through a wall, breaking his hand because he couldn’t get a song right. That kind of passion either cause a band to implode, or the members find a way to compromise and mellow with age. For the Heartbreakers, both kind of happened. Lynch quit the band and Epstein was asked to leave; he eventually OD’d on heroin. Meanwhile, Petty achieved nova-like success and decided that it was good to be king and that he didn’t want to fight all of the time.

Tom_Petty_15

The past fifteen years have seen some good Petty songs, but not necessarily good Petty albums. From the sound of it, Petty and the band set out to really change that with Mojo.

“Jefferson Jericho Blues” shares some of the same looseness of early Heartbreakers deep cuts, while Mojo’s first single, “I Should Have Known It,” is the cousin of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (from 1995’s Wildflowers). Elsewhere, there are some tender ballads, which Petty never gets enough credit for, like the country-tinged “No Reason to Cry” and “Something Good Coming.” The latter holds up with some of Petty’s best heartbreakers.

Petty once claimed that he didn’t like repeating himself and the band continues to explore other genres besides the Americana rock they are famous for playing. “First Flash of Freedom” is an extended jam featuring fine guitar interplay between Mike Campbell and Scott Thurston. It feels like it may have been inspired in a haze of second-hand smoke during some of the Heartbreakers gigs with the Allman Brothers Band. “U.S. 41” is a swampy blues stomp; “Takin’ My Time” is embedded deep in the blues; and “Don’t Pull Me Over” has a reggae groove that will likely go over well in concert.

Throughout the album, Campbell and Thurston trade guitar licks with relish and Tench displays some of his finest organ playing and piano textures in all of the Heartbreakers long history. As usual, Ron Blair (the band’s original bassist who came back to the fold after Epstein was canned) holds things down with sturdy, unobtrusive bass playing.

Still, there is a sameness to this lot of songs that, unfortunately, must be attributed to drummer Steve Ferrone. The longtime session player plays with such precision and technical prowess that it lacks any personality. If the Heartbreakers are one thing, it’s a band full of personalities, from Blair’s dyed black hair to Campbell’s dreads to Petty’s entire personality. There are some tracks on Mojo in which Ferrone seems to find that Heartbreaker groove, but these are only moments. Frankly, it just doesn’t sound like the Heartbreakers, at least, not the Heartbreakers we’ve all come to love. Alas, it’s not our band but Petty’s; and if he’s happy with a human metronome behind the drum kit, then fans will have to live with it (seriously, the drums on “Let Yourself Go” and “Running Man’s Bible” could have been programmed in Tench’s organ, they’re that lifeless).

For this reason, despite the strong number of songs (there are a couple fillers- the curse of the CD age) repeated listens of Mojo may breed familiarity of the songs, but none of them really scream “classic.” (2010, Reprise)

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers official site
Click to buy Mojo from Amazon

  

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