Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

In A World Of Changes, Some Things Remain The Same. And The Same....

Strongest album: Full Moon Fever
Weakest album: Southern Accents

Throughout his long and not exactly varied career, Tom Petty has pretty much made the same album with minor variations over a dozen times. The good news is that he's very consistent; listen to almost any record of his and you know exactly what you'll be getting. If you like his brand of straightforward, unpretentious, traditionalist, uninnovative, radio-ready rock'n'roll then you can dive into his reportoire at random. Hardly any of his albums are groundbreaking masterpieces, but none of them are truly bad, either. Nobly carrying on the legacy of the Byrds, and to a lesser extent Dylan and the Stones (maybe the Beatles, too, but more accurately the Searchers), Tom Petty was a welcome new voice when he came out in the late '70s. He become a sort of standard bearer for a generation of rock fans who felt alienated by punk and new wave, and who had no use for the lunkheaded corporate rock and Spinal Tap-ish metal that dominated AOR. Since then he's kept delivering the goods, releasing three or four middling hits per album for nearly 20 years now. If you're not already sick of his being played ad naseum on the radio, then his records should be fun, if decidedly minor pleasures: he'd love to be one of the greats, but he's not one of the greats. He's just a regular Joe, albeit a really talented one, who knows both his considerable strengths and considerable limitations, and likewise sticks to the formula he knows: jangly midtempo pop-rockers mostly, occassionally hitting a bit harder and throwing in a ballad or three for good measure. My ratings of his records reflect that consistency - they're entirely within the *** to **** star range, with ***1/2 stars the most common. I mean, I tried to vary the range a little bit to keep things interesting, but I found that I just couldn't!

Intrigued by this California exile from Florida? There's a ton'o sites out there. Indiana Girl is a good place to start. For those equipped, Jonathan's Multimedia Petty Page has a large collection of movies, audio samples, and other downloadable files.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (1976) ***1/2

The blueprint for subsequent releases. It starts off strong with the boppy "Rockin' Around (With You)" and stays strong throughout. Some of the slower, moodier pieces like "Strangered In The Night" drag the proceedings a bit, but even those are pretty solid, too. The hits were "Breakdown", and my fave Petty song, "American Girl", a shameless Byrds pastiche. "Anything That's Rock'n'Roll" is as fiesty as its title, and "The Wild One, Forever" doesn't quite live up to a title that great (how could it?), but it's a good tune anyway. Petty's north Florida hicktown roots show through by his frequent complaining about being bored with his hometown and wanting to get out somehow, which I can testify rings true since I came from a southern nowheresville myself. A good beginning.

You're Gonna Get It (1978)

I don't have this one. It contains "I Need To Know" and "Listen To Her Heart", both hits. I have no reason to believe it sounds any different from the albums surrounding it.

Damn The Torpedoes (1979) ***1/2

This one has more hits than any other album he'd do until 1989, but that doesn't many it's any better than his other albums - it just means that it has more hits. "Refugee" a biting putdown of bohemians; the ebullient "Here Comes My Girl"; the jaded "Don't Do Me Like That"; and the guardedly optimistic (and sentimentally cliched) "Even The Losers" have graced the airwaves since you and I were fetal, or at least it feels that way. The rest is typical Petty - a throwaway ("Century City"), a ballad ("Lousiana Rain"), some rocking out. There's not a whole lot more to say; Petty doesn't deliver a whole lot that's interesting to analyze, or get really excited or pissed off about - just good, solid rock'n'roll.

Hard Promises (1981) ***1/2

Petty takes his Byrds fixation to its peak on this album - this is nearly all jangly and midtempo, with only a couple of kinda-not-really-funky tracks ("Nightwatchman") and ballads, one a duet with Stevie Nicks ("The Insider"). It opens with the best track, "The Waiting", which was put to good use in a Simpsons episode, and is a dead ringer for a - you guessed it - classic Byrds single, complete with an unforgettable ringing guitar hook. The other hit was "Woman In Love (It's Not Me)", though you hear the (boy, am I repeating myself) jangly, midtempo "Kings Road" on the radio just as often. It ends with a nondescript ballad, "You Can Still Change Your Mind". I like it a bit less than the previous albums, but not enough to worry me in any real noticable way - hence the same grade. It does become a bit monotonous due to its unvarying stylistic stance (rut?), though.

Long After Dark (1982) ***1/2

This one's a bit more varied than the last album, mainly because Tom seemed to have discovered synthesizers. Actually, the only song that uses them is the big hit, "You Got Lucky". Otherwise, it's pretty much like the other albums he's made. It rushes in with the fast rocker, "One Story Town", which suffers a bit from muddy production; as the title indicates, Tom's returning to his first album hometown blues. "Deliver Me" is a good midtempo tune, and "Change Of Heart" an absolutely fabulous riff-rocker and my favorite from this album. Things slack off towards the end though, with only the powerful "Straight Into Darkness" comparing to the aforementioned first-side songs. Petty's singing on "Wasted Life" is uncomfortablely nasal, too, emphasizing the worst aspects of his singing. Awww, whatever....still sounds good, and I probably listen to this more than the rest of his first five albums.

Southern Accents (1985) ***

Now here's where Tom starts stretching out. Compared to just about anybody else, this is a damn conventional album, but remember Tom is very, very conservative with his musical approach, and so any changes are as shocking as a Ramones guitar solo. It's produced by Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, who also co-writes three of these songs, for one thing. For another, Tom splatters a horn section on several cuts. And for another, he tries to craft a concept album about Southern Pride and some other horseshit like that. Maybe Yankees are bit cautious about this subject, and rightly so since you don't know anything about it, but I'm calling Tom on his belief that somehow he's oh so oppressed because he's a Southerner. Yeah, right - Tom, you've got this backwards: in small southern towns, ignorant rednecks aren't the oppressed, they're the oppressor class of anyone who's different than them. You know, blacks, uppity wommin', sissie boys (guys who get called fags 'cause they don't do macho things like spit and murder defenseless animals with shotguns), and practically anybody with brains or culture. You know, the Skynyrd crowd. It gets unbearable on the lynch fantasy "Spike" (Tom gets away with it 'cause the KKK's lynching a punk rocker, not a negro), and throughout I find his misguided self-pity unbearable. The music itself only works intermittently, best on the opener "Rebels", "Dogs On The Run", and the memorable video "Don't Come Around Here No More". Otherwise Tom and cohorts overreach themselves; it's an admirable attempt, but still fails. I'm really tempted to dock this a notch, though, for Tom forgetting that the Civil War was over and done a century ago.

Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) (1987) ***

After getting that self-indulgence out of his system, Petty returns to his roots on this album, with less than satisfactory results. Other than the hit "Jammin' Me", perhaps the first Top 40 song about channel surfing, and the should've been a hit "Runaway Trains", the band seems like it's going through the motions, delivering standard Petty without the inspiration of previous albums. That said, this is fairly entertaining; Petty's too competent and consistent to really do that bad. I kind of like the folk ballad "It'll All Work Out", and the return to straightforward rocking is refreshing after the last album's indulgences. Otherwise, not much to get worked up over here; not bad, not really that good, either.

Tom Petty: Full Moon Fever (1989) ****

Oddly enough, Petty delivered his most consistent album (and biggest selling) on his first official solo outing, which apparently was originally meant as simply a one-off side project. One could quibble with Jeff Lynne's glossy production, but I won't - since when is production really that important with a Tom Petty project? It kicks off with Petty's best mid-tempo song, "Free Fallin'", which has cute references to L.A. suburbs or subdivisions or whatever (I'm never moving to that smog-infected burg, so I couldn't care less). You also get the chugging "I Won't Back Down" and the repetitive rocker "Running Down A Dream", both hits. Plus an ace Byrds cover (who else?) "Feel A Whole Lot Better". Then you get the CD intermission that lets you pause for a few seconds before side two - I think CDs ought to make that a regular feature, but unfortunately no one else has picked it up yet. Starting side two is yet another hit, the anti-yuppie "Yer So Bad". It closes with the sub-Dylanesque throwaway "Zombie Zoo". I think the rest of these songs got played on the radio all the time, too, and even if they didn't, it sure feels that way.

Into The Great Wide Open (1991)

Don't have this one, either, though I've heard quite a bit of it on the radio (as have, undoubtedly, you). Apparently Petty and the boys got more jangly than usual on this effort. Petty also ripped off Paul Westerberg's phrase "rebel without a clue" on the title track.

Greatest Hits (1993) ****

Unless you're sick of hearing these songs from constant radio overexposure, then this is a good purchase for fans of jangly, melodic AOR rock. I could quibble with the song selection - there's nothing from Let Me Up, I've Had Enough - but otherwise this is a fine document of Petty's artistry. Well, you wouldn't call Petty an artiste (with an e at the end), really - he's more a highly skilled craftsman, laying down his hooks and melodies like bricklayer. I mean that in a good way - this is very solid entertainment, and Petty is such a pro that he almost never misfires. This compilation offers two new tunes as bait: a so-so cover of Thunderclap Newman's "Something In The Air" and that one in which Tom dances with a dead Kim Basinger, "Last Dance For Mary Jane" (which borrows its opening chord sequence from the Jayhawks' "Waiting For The Sun" - come on Tom, this plagariasm trip you're on is getting ridiculous).

Tom Petty: WildFlowers (1994) ***1/2

Laid back to the point where it almost seems he set this record on snooze control, it also contains some of Tom's most appealingly relaxed material; it all goes down easy, if some of it's hard to remember when it's over, and overloading the album with too many songs (14 in all) doesn't help. The rockers don't work, but the ballads and midtempo numbers do, which makes sense considering Tom's age and how long he's been in the biz. An enjoyable album, if a bit mundane, like all of Petty's albums. The only problem I have is Tom's increasingly obvious plagiarisms. It's enough that he lifted a line from the Replacements last time out; I could deal with that. Now, however, he's echoing Dolly Parton on the title track, which I don't like a lot since I don't like Dolly Parton. The obvious moment of plagiarism, though, is on the next song. Whenever I hear Tom singing, "You Don't Know How It Feels, no, you don't know how it feels...." I can't resist adding, "To love somebody, to love somebody like I love you". Ripping off the Bee Gees the way Tom does is almost classic in its way, but it's a bit, um, obvious. To me, at least - how come nobody else realized that? He's also got self-plagiarism working, since "Cabin Down Below" and "House In The Woods" are practically the same song. Oh, well....guess he's just slippin' a wee bit, but otherwise it's the same old Petty, even if nowadays he's a bit more prone to folky little numbers than rockin' little numbers.

She's The One (1996)

The soundtrack to a movie that I haven't seen except for the previews, I haven't heard this album either. Technically a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album, as opposed to a Tom Petty solo album, which don't mean beans to me and shouldn't mean beans to you unless you're a Heartbreaker, my guess is that it sounds pretty much like all the other Tom Petty albums. Unless he's halfheartedly dabbling in techno or whatever like Mellencamp and Madonna, which for some reason I doubt.

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