Monday, June 28, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 64 - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Over the course of last week, I became fascinated with backing bands. For example, sometimes Tom Petty records an album with the Heartbreakers, sometimes the Heartbreakers are there but uncredited, and sometimes he's by himself. When the band started, how did Petty convince the rest of the musicians to let him plaster his name on the group? How do they feel when he goes off and records solo albums? Do they ever hang and play just as "The Heartbreakers"?

At least the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Tom Petty in 2002. As far as I can tell, this is the first time in the Hall of Fame's history that a backing band was recognized alongside their more famous frontman (a feat repeated in 2003 with Elvis Costello and the Attractions). But Bruce Springsteen was inducted without the E Street Band, Neil Young without Crazy Horse, Prince without the Revolution, Bob Marley without the Wailers. The entire process seems sort of arbitrary - I feel that the E Street Band is far more important to Springsteen than the Attractions are to Costello.

But that's the interesting things about these supporting outfits - it's hard to determine how much of an influence they actually have. Tom Petty is clearly the Big Fish, and he's made some great albums with the Heartbreakers. Even his solo albums have been peppered by nearly every member of the band. So what would Petty be without the Heartbreakers? Could he put on a good show with a different band? Does he stay with them only for familiarity's sake, or are they an essential part of his musical persona?

The best musicians compliment each other, becoming a tight unit that functions as one, familiarizing themselves with the others' styles. I suppose I'd have to see a live show with the Heartbreakers to know how good they are; listening to recordings, your guess is as good as mine in terms of their importance.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

MY LISTENING: I listened to Damn the Torpedoes (1979) every day this week. I also managed to put on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976), Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) two times each.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Basically, "Free Fallin'." And that one Superbowl where Tom Petty played the halftime show.


At his best, Tom Petty strips down rock and roll to its most basic elements, and crafts a hell of an enjoyable song out them. In particular, his early work is so good partially because of it's simplicity. True, his eponymous debut album has a little bit of filler, but when you leave with the bluesy "Breakdown" or the upbeat pop ballad of "American Girl" running through your head, you really don't mind.

But, out of his early stuff, Damn the Torpedoes definitely has the best collection of songs, with hardly a clunker in the bunch. While songs like "Refugee" have rightfully earned their place in the Classic Rock Canon, underplayed gems like the heartfelt "Louisiana Rain" are just as enjoyable to listen to. Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers) manage to string together a great set of hits on this album without ever missing a beat or trying too hard. Damn the Torpedoes is an enjoyable album because it sticks with basic rock performed in an unadorned style - and the songwriting and the performance are solid. Petty's not trying to rewrite the Book of Rock. Instead, he's content to celebrate its roots.

But the Petty album I enjoyed the most this week was Wildflowers, a later album that seems to be regarded as only a minor classic at best. I only listened to it because it happened to be on the shelf at my public library. I'm glad I did - while the critics don't seem to talk about it like Damn the Torpedoes or Full Moon Fever, Wildflowers is an incredible record. Here, Petty sounds his most rootsy and sincere, his songs no longer accompanied by the overdubbed bombast of songs like "Free Fallin'." The beginning of the album explores the country side of rock and roll, with songs like "You Don't Know How It Feels" and "Wildflowers," the latter being a soft, beautiful track with one of Petty's best melodies. But by the album ends with classic Petty rock, like the unkempt guitars of "House in the Woods," full of the riffs and hooks Petty is great at. Wildflowers is the album that makes the best case for Petty being a great artist, and not just some dude who stitches together a batch simple rock songs every time he wants to make a buck.


Full Moon Fever, produced by ELO-auteur Jeff Lynne at the end of the 80s, is decidedly more streamlined and smoother than most of the other Petty that I listened to. And while I don't dislike the megahit "Free Fallin'," I'm starting to think it's overrated - a catchy melody ramped up to a pretentious, faux-cathartic conclusion. Several other songs on the album managed to almost but not quite catch my interest - "Zombie Zoo" might have been a good song without the weird 80s instrumentation and echoey vocals.

But perhaps the worst thing about Tom Petty is that, with the exception of Wildflowers, I found myself becoming bored with him by the end of the week. As mentioned above, he's great at fashioning together good old-fashioned rock songs, devoid of bells and whistles. But that makes the bulk of Petty's output extremely expendable, and somewhat bland. There's hardly a bad song on Damn the Torpedoes, but you're also going to leave the album without very many memorable songs, either - songs like "Even the Losers" or "Shadow of a Doubt" just don't have any staying power.

Too often, it seems, Petty plays it safe. It's certainly part of his appeal - his songs are catchy and well-crafted. But it seems like there's a lack of energy on Petty's part a good deal of the time - good songwriting is only half of the equation, and it seems that Petty is easily contented with going through the motions and cranking out easily digestible and disposable rock. It's rock that kids and grandparents will love, but I think that's partially because it can be so plain.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's a handful of more Petty albums, the most famous of which seem to be Hard Promises (1981), and Into the Great Wide Open (1991). Petty also was part of a supergroup known as the Traveling Wilburys, with Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan - a cast list so impressive they might just be worth checking out.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Mary Jane's Last Dance"
This song was recorded during the Wildflowers session, and it should have been included. I like rock songs tinged with nostalgia and regret.