Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo

[Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers play Milwaukee's Summerfest this week on Friday and Saturday]

By Joshua Miller

When it comes to making an impact or statement, rock and roll legends Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would do just fine as the poster band of how to run a band and keep things interesting. With a track record of 34 years full of Petty and company’s irresistible charm for catchy rock and roll anthems and emotional ballads, the band has faired considerably well and managed to steamroll any obstacles that came along.

That kind of attitude might lead a band of that age to eventually coast into their golden years, staying safe with hits they wrote when they were in their 20s or 30s. But for Tom Petty, the will to play (and continue to make songs that end up as paperweights or afterthoughts to a great career) has driven the band forward on a furious pace. With each decade the band’s found a way to stay relevant and 2010 might continue that.

If you need an example of that, just check out the band’s latest release “Mojo.” Rather than make another “Damn the Torpedoes,” the band threw a new curveball into their sound – the blues. Inspired by the live on the floor sessions of Petty’s former band Mudcrutch, the new album features a diverse collection of American and British blues, rock and roll, and country songs cut right on the spot, many in first takes. There’s hints here and there of the what the band’s been into lately – J.J. Cale, Grateful Dead, Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, just to name a few – but they never really feel as note for note rehashes of these influences. Instead they blend old and new into something fresh and distinctly their own.

While the 15 songs on the album sometimes stray away from their time-tested formula that made them famous – instantly catchy, short anthems and the like – in favor of more of Allman Brothers-like blues jam lengths, the album certainly shows the whole band flexing its muscle and brings out everyone’s strengths.

Petty shines as usual, or maybe even more so, with some great lyrics – full of hope, mystery, joy, humor and wit – and sung passionately with his unmistakable southern drawl. His frequent sideman on his journeys, Mike Campbell, a usually tasteful guitar player, gets to let loose and, while I never thought my appreciation for him could get any higher this record shows that he still has some tricks up his sleeves. Scott Thurston and Benmont Tench also shine, as they get to show the full capability of their flashy harmonica and piano/organ playing, respectively, something that might get lost or not featured as much on past albums.

“Mojo” begins aptly with the blues jangle of “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” a song that features an overdose of Thurston’s sublimely harmonica, dueling blues guitars and a humorous story about Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with Sally Hemings. Only Petty, with his southern wit and humor, could have crafted a song that worked so well.

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The band takes many detours and the first happens right after in “First Flash of Freedom.” Bookended by a driving guitar beginning and coda, the song dives into a psychedelic, jazzy rock and roll waltz that offers hints of Allman Brothers with mouth-watering guitars (and solo) that scream for attention.

The album continues with a blues swagger of “Running Man’s Bible,” which has one of my favorite lyrics from the album. Petty sings part way in the song “Took on all comers in some shape or form/And I see with the eyes of somethin’ wounded/Somethin’ still standing after the storm/Here’s one to glory and survival/And staying alive/It’s the running man’s bible.”

The album’s blue exploration continues with “The Trip to Pirates Cove” which tells of a story of group of friends that go on a trip that ends up getting derailed and who end up partying with hotel maids. “Candy” features a fun, catchy little J.J. Cale-like rocker, and one’s only to assume he’s not just talking about candy. The most country sounding song on the album, “No Reason to Cry,” sounds a little bit like a mix of Petty’s “Wildflowers” and Mudcrutch.

For those looking for a hard rocking anthem-like song typical of the Heartbreakers catalog, “I Should Have Known It” should leave you satisfied. The song has a bit of a “Makin’ Some Noise” sound mixed with hard Led Zeppelin-like riffs and lots of fun that’s typical of a Heartbreakers track. As this was one of the first tracks I heard from the album, when Campbell goes all guitar hero part-way during the song that was a pleasant surprise. The album’s slick, cool nature and great vocal/guitar work continues on Petty’s “U.S. 41,” a swampy bluesy track that fits perfectly with the band’s northern Florida roots and a slow-burning/slowly building Muddy Waters and early blues of “Takin’ My Time” and “Let Yourself Go.” Petty asks in “Takin’ My Time”, “What’s on the road after me?”

One of the album’s biggest surprises is the funky reggae tune “Don’t Pull Me Over,” which sees the band try out the new style to great success. It sounds like the 80s Heartbreakers got together with a reggae band. Petty pleads in the song for the policeman to let him to off the hook and might be timely in today’s hot topic of immigration. “Don’t pull me over should be legalized,” Petty sings. There’s a lot of emotion in “Lover’s Touch” and there’s no doubt the character in that song really, really cares for the woman and doesn’t want to let her go.

The album finishes with three amazing tracks – “High in the Morning,” “Something Good Coming,” and “Good Enough.” “High in the Morning” features some great high octane guitars action while the sweetly swaying rock ballad “Something Good Coming” shows the character holding hope that something good is coming but trying to gain confidence that they’re ready. “I’m watching the water/Watching the coast/Suddenly I know/What I want the most/And I want to tell you/Still I hold back,” Petty sings brilliantly. “Good Enough” offers some powerful blues that mixes in some early Led Zeppelin/the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sound with the jam band length of the Allman Brothers and Mike Campbell just tears it up on guitar. (The iTunes bonus track “Little Girl Blues” is definitely worth getting for the Petty diehards out there as it features some more fun rock and roll and blues).

Even with the blue shift in sound the band nonetheless hit a hurtling-toward-the-future stride on this album, emitting bolts of energy and emotion that recall the raw atmosphere of the band’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s albums. Playing live with little to no overdubs – showing the band in its true element – might be the best thing that’s happened to this band is a while. While it’s hard to say where this one gets placed among their other albums, but it’s more than a welcome addition. It’s exciting to see that Tom Petty and company still have the mojo for making amazingly great songs (even if they’re not all instant hits).

Buy: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Mojo