Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Mojo

January 01, 1970

(Reprise)

 

www.repriserecords.com

 

In a way, it’s a shame we’ve got the internet and all the
attendant accelerated media when it comes to the arts, and to rock ‘n’ roll in
particular. Once upon a time, a new record would be released and you’d hear
about it from a friend, or maybe chance upon it in a store, and then a month or
so later read a review in Rolling Stone or Time or, if the artist was coming
to your town on tour, in the daily newspaper. The sense of personal discovery
made it seem like you were taking possession of a genuine artifact, an act not to be taken lightly since the presumption was
that your hard-earned $4.98 – yes, that’s what LPs used to cost – was gonna buy
you a lifetime’s worth of musical memories.

 

Nowadays, of course, those memories are as lasting as a
click or two of a mouse, or a quick trip to the trade counter of your local CD
store. And with record labels’ marketing departments not willing to gamble on
word of mouth to shift units for them, the p.r. campaigns get rolled out way in
advance so that the buying public knows well before the official street date
what to expect and what the record’s backstory is (and, increasingly, what it sounds like, too, given how the illicit
leaking of albums has given way to the inevitable practice of artists streaming
new releases prior to street).

 

So anyone reading this probably already knows the deal with
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new Mojo (Reprise), about how it (a) reflects Petty’s desire to employ the
six-guys-in-a-circle-in-a-room-jamming approach to songwriting, in this
instance at the band’s rehearsal space; (b) comes on the heels of the 2008
Mudcrutch summit that found Petty dipping into sonic styles from the ‘60s and
early ‘70s with members of his early, pre-Heartbreakers band, and getting his
batteries recharged as a result; and (c) additionally comes on the heels of
last year’s sprawling The Live Anthology box – reviewed here at BLURT, “That Southern Accent” – which had Petty and
guitarist Mike Campbell trawling a career-spanning archive of concert
recordings and revisiting some of the emotions made them want to be a band in
the first place.

 

Translation for you, the discriminating music consumer: Mojo is a return-to-roots affair, loaded
with the blues, Southern rock and West Coast psychedelia of Petty’s youth, a loose,
collaborative and comfort-zone effort for the band aimed at pleasing themselves
first and foremost (but which won’t come across as exactly esoteric to their
core audience).

 

In fact, everything in the preceding two paragraphs has been
spelled out fairly explicitly by the mainstream media in the weeks leading up
to the album’s June 15 release. For example, on June 1, the day the
Heartbreakers kicked off their Mojo tour in Denver, the Chicago Tribune‘s
Greg Kot published an interview with Petty (“We got into a comfortable space in
our rehearsal room… As soon as we had something working as group, there was a
recording of that event, and that became the record… For the last 10, 11 years,
I’ve been immersed in blues. That’s what I listen to all the time and we got
caught up in that vibe on this record.”). The current issue of Rolling Stone, which hit newsstands
about 10 days ago, contains David Fricke’s four-star review of Mojo in which he mentions its live vibe,
its similarity in tone to Exile on Main
Street,
the vintage instruments the band used, and – on three separate
occasions – the word “blues.”

 

Then just last Thursday, to ensure that your parents didn’t
miss the news either, USA Today ran a
front-page feature on Petty in the “Lifeline” section that dutifully reported
all of the above: “blues,” “blues,” “bluesmen,” “blues records,” “vintage
guitars,” “the [album’s] sound was created in the room” and – in the article’s
most telling boomer-centric Petty quote – “We found a comfortable
identity. I don’t want to be turning flips at 60. I see rock musicians who
really don’t understand how old they are, and it’s undignified. I find those
people embarrassing.” To be fair, you can’t blame Petty, his handlers or the media for playing this game; in
the same USA Today piece Petty
pointed out, accurately, that while radio was key to his initial success (and
I’d add that the aforementioned word-of-mouth among fans played a big part too,
having known my fair share of totally rabid Pettyphiles), in 2010, contemporary
hits radio doesn’t program all that many artists of his ilk. It’s a wise man
who looks for fresh outlets when the old ones are no longer there, and Petty’s no
dummy.

 

All this raises the question, then, is there anything left
to even write about Mojo in a nominal
review of the album?

 

Well… sure. For
starters, it’s a stronger, more assured effort than the last proper TP and the
Heartbreakers album, 2002’s The Last DJ,
which was very good but got bogged down in a few spots by its thematic
conceits. And it’s a zillion times better than 2006’s Highway Companion, a Petty solo album that, aside from some
contributions from Campbell and coproducer Jeff Lynne, featured Petty playing
most of the instruments and going for a loose (if polished) feel that
ultimately came off as tentative and too introspective for its own good. So whether
Petty came to view those two records as misfires or was energized by the
Mudcrutch and The Live Anthology experiences (or both), the end result is a collection of tunes that sounds like
it was fun to write and record, one which evolved organically from the sheer
joy of making music together.

 

After kickstarting the album with a harmonica-and-piano powered
Little Walter-styled boogie (“Jefferson Jericho Blues,” whose part-surreal,
part-cheeky subject matter involves Thomas Jefferson’s love child with one of
his slaves), Petty & Co. move into the first of several signature numbers destined
to find their way onto live setlists: the psychedelic “First Flash of Freedom”
is half-Allman Brothers, half-Quicksilver Messenger Service, what with its waltz-time
rhythm, prominent organ motif and elliptical, elegiac, almost Coltrane-esque
riffing; and at seven minutes in length, there’s plenty of potential for
in-concert extrapolation. Going in another direction, but one equally inclined
towards rock classicism, is “I Should Have Known It,” which sounds like
somebody’s either been listening a lot to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (check Campbell’s Page-like guitar breaks plus
the way Steve Ferrone’s thundering drums are pushed up in the mix) or, equally
likely, trying to come up with a number they could easily segue with their
blistering cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” a concert fave for the band. And
the slinky, smoky blues of “Lover’s Touch” has a sexy late-night vibe and
sensual swing not that far removed from Petty staple “Breakdown,”
simultaneously anthemic and laid-back, perfect for a mid-set change of pace.

 

Yet Mojo is a long
(65 minutes) record, so with 15 songs, there’s a lot here to draw upon, and in
some instances it’s the subtle performances that comprise the album’s strongest.
The ethereal, dreamy “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” is a first person travelogue
reminiscent of parts of 1994’s masterful Wildflowers;
Campbell’s delicate fretboard filigrees dance alongside Benmont Tench’s equally
tasteful electric piano lines, with both lending sonic gravitas to Petty’s cinematic
narrative. The twangy, slide guitar-powered “U.S. 41,” initially slight, gains
urgency with repeated listens until it becomes an irresistible foot-tapper, and
at exactly three minutes in length and positioned as track #8, makes for a
great center-of-album number. “Let Yourself Go,” likewise, has a deceptive
get-under-skin feel; part boogie and part shuffle, it brings to mind the old
Billy Boy Arnold (by way of the Yardbirds) blues chestnut “I Wish You Would.”
Meanwhile, cautionary tale “High In The Morning” is simultaneously slinky and
tough and a guitar geek’s dream piece to boot thanks to Campbell’s jazzy riffs,
twinned lead passages and deep-mix backwards bits.

 

Ultimately Mojo,
by striking a deft balance between earthy performances and crystalline
production and presenting a focused-yet-diverse array of tunes, is the most
satisfying studio release from Petty in a decade or more. Damn the media clichés,
then; it’s far more than a return to roots.

 

It’s a goddam renewal, spinning the same kind of
new-discovery magic that sparked the imagination of a pre-internet generation
all those years ago. Who’s up for some memories?

 

Standout Tracks:  “First Flash of Freedom,” “U.S. 41,” “High In
The Morning,”  “Lover’s Touch” FRED
MILLS

 

 

 

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