Let’s be honest: Tom Petty has released innocuous records for nearly a quarter-century now and we’ve allowed him to do it. After battling his record company in 1981’s Hard Promises, the most vitriolic we’ve seen him is to urge us to “Take back Joe Piscopo” (“Jammin’ Me”) and “Roll another joint” (“You Don’t Know How It Feels”).
His attempt at trying to regain that image of a corporate monster fighter, 2002’s The Last DJ, fell short. It’s one thing to sing about evil corporations and how they’ve destroyed music, but to deliver that album on a major label (Warner Brothers) on one hand and then agree to perform the hits on the biggest corporate sponsored event on the planet (the Super Bowl) afterwards, it kind of deflates that everyman image you’re trying to present.
At the same time, Petty is a guy who’s hard to hold a grudge against. Even at his most complacent, he’s enjoyable. I won’t promise to buy anything that he’s done with Jeff Lynne, but I won’t hold Petty accountable for wanting to work with the over-produced bastard either.
I was rather tickled at the notion that Petty decided, after a thirty-year plus layoff, to get his old band, Mudcrutch, back together. And by “old band”, I mean, essentially, the Heartbreakers with Petty playing bass, Tom Leadon on lead guitar and Randall Marsh on drums. Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, who wasn’t in Mudcrutch’s early configuration, joins in along with guitarist Mike Campbell.
One would then think that, with the majority of the same old players in the line-up, we could expect the same old Tom Petty album. Seriously, there isn’t much difference between a Tom Petty solo record and a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, is there? Nonetheless, the Mudcrutch idea intrigued me and the result is the most enjoyable Petty album in recent memory.
Perhaps I’m supposed to downplay Petty’s role since Mudcrutch tries hard to project itself as a band project. Indeed, the first vocals you’ll hear aren’t Petty’s, they’re Leadon’s. Leadon also gets a hand at contributing his own song (“Queen Of The Go-Go Girls”) while Benmont Tench delivers the vocals and songwriting credit to one of his own too (“This Is A Good Street”).
But the rest of the record is clearly Petty’s project, but one where he allows the occasional meandering to become the overall vibe. The vibe being a clear descendent of The Byrds Mach III (in fact, they cover “Lover Of The Bayou” from Untitled) and other early 70s SoCal country rock alumni. It’s a good thing hearing Petty represent a different coastal scene; the move from Florida to California is a good fit and, had they continued down this path during their initial musical forays, it would be surprising if they didn’t make a name for themselves in that region.
To that point, the idea that it’s taken Mudcrutch three-and-a-half decades to finally release their debut album is actually part of the appeal here. Amazingly, it sounds frozen in time, a lost artifact from the early seventies of a forgotten band pushed out of the spotlight thanks to the tepid offerings of the first few Eagles albums.
Not only is Mudcrutch better than those albums, it’s different. Melody and vocal harmonies are replaced with Leadon and Campbell’s guitar interactions. The two gunslingers patiently wait for each another to heat things up while Petty stands on the sidelines to watch their unpretentious playing.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the album’s centerpiece, “Crystal River,” a nine-plus minute opus that’s as mellow as a beach fire joint. Four and a half minutes into the song, the band begins to scale back, seemingly looking for someone to end the song. Leadon and Campbell keep going, lightly playing off each other until the rest of the band follows while letting the two casually jam on. Had they filled out the rest of Mudcrutch with songs like this, we would surely have a wonderfully capable jam-band ready to make a living among the American patchouli set.
The rest of the interplay on the more economically timed songs is imperceptibly delivered with only a few songs truly rollicking forward. The reason for this has more to do with mood rather than age. It seems that Petty’s mid-life crisis has more to do with returning back to take care of some unfinished business rather than trying to relive his youth. And for those of us who weren’t around for it during Mudcrutch’s initial forays, it’s good to be able to hear Petty flip through his yearbook. This return back to the bars is certainly a better fit for him than the Super Bowl halftime show.
Video: Mudcrutch – “Scare Easy”
Video: Mudcrutch – “The Story” (short documentary)