Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kat's Korner: Forget the plantation, who forgot to pack up the songs?

Kat: What is it with musicians today? From 1965 through 1968, the Mamas & the Papas released If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, The Mamas & the Papas, The Mamas and the Papas Deliver and The Papas and The Mamas, the four albums that cemented their reputation as one of the great rock groups of the sixties. They got 15 top 100 singles in the process, ten of which went top thirty, all in three years. Sarah McLachlan's just released Laws of Illusion -- her first album in seven years (other than Christmas and repackaging albums) -- and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers just released their first album in eight years.

Mojo is the name of Petty and company's latest and it kicks off with "Jefferson Jericho Blues." The song whiffs of indifference. What is he saying? You think the annoying riff has a point but it never makes it, you think the third verse will make sense of the first and second but it never does. At best, the album opens with an inside joke.

"The Trip to Pirate's Cove" is probably the strongest of the set and has a smoldering hook reminiscent of Santana's "Evil Ways." "And she was kind of cute, If a little past her prime," Petty sings as the song begins fading out. On Windows Media Player, the highest rated song is "Lover's Touch," another smoldering, slow groove. And you may wonder if Petty and the Heartbreakers are capable of a fast rocker anymore?

"High in the Morning" indicates that they haven't lost their knack for a full on rocker. And throughout the band sounds great, alive and experimenting. Especially on the reggae number "Don't Pull Me Over."

While the performances are grand, it's a shame time wasn't taken with the songwriting. Musically, there's not a song on this album that won't remind you of some other song from the seventies or sixties. Reminding me, in fact, of my mother catching the early moments of Live Aid back in the eighties (she denies this story) and exclaiming, "I love Roger McGuinn and the Byrds!" To which I replied, "Mom, that's Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers."

That said, Tom's responsible for writing and co-writing a number of hits: "American Girl," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (duet with Stevie Nicks), "Breakdown," "Refugee," "The Waiting" and so much more. Yet here he comes off like Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart on fumes with We Too Are One, just repeating the title of the song over and over and calling it a chorus.

"The Trip To Pirate's Cove" and "High In The Morning" work as actual songs, not a lot else does. There are great performances and the verses usually have a clever line or two but no time's really been spent creating a chorus or crafting a song. A lot of the press in the lead up to the release insisted that this was a 'live' studio album and a lot of the tracks were first takes. Were the songs first drafts?

It is wonderful to hear Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performing at the top of their game. It's just a damn shame no one thought a band cooking like this deserved actual songs. You get a lot of riffs, a lot of swipes and steals from others, you just don't get the songs.

The album ends with a track entitled "Good Enough" and that seems to be the way Tom Petty's approached the album. "That's good enough," Petty sings. And I'm putting that with the press spin of first takes and left with an uneasy feeling that this may be the end for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The whole thing plays a lot like Frank Sinatra's behavior on film sets after From Here To Eternity made him a star all over again. First takes were "good enough" for Sinatra from then on. Audiences begged to differ.