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Music Review: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Mojo

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In the wonderful Peter Bogdonavich film Runnin’ Down A Dream, Heartbreaker lead guitarist Mike Campbell revealed the secret formula at the heart of so much of the band’s phenomenal success over their more than 30-year career: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Well, the times, they are a-changing. It’s a brave new world for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and it must please Petty to no end that he and his mates have decided to broaden their horizons not by looking forward but by looking back. There’s also something beautifully perverse in following up a four-hour documentary of your band with a 15-song serving of revisionist history. It took more than 30 years for The Heartbreakers to become the blues band they’ve always wanted to be… in some fashion.

This shift for the band is not a marketing gimmick nor cosmetic change. The album title exposes Petty’s deep understanding and appreciation of American blues. Mojo is a great title for a blues record, the word and its many meanings being a vital part of the language of the idiom. Thumb through the liner notes and skim those album credits. Mojo was recorded live, everyone playing together and with minimal overdubs, each song cut in one day. Many of the instruments are late ‘50s and early ‘60s models. The Heartbreakers occasionally indulging in modernity but largely ignore it. Many of Petty’s heroes had to record this way but The Heartbreakers are doing it on and with purpose The textures, openness, and dynamic range of could not be captured or presented any other way. This is a classic vinyl LP pressed on to CD (the album is available on vinyl as well as Blu-ray DVD-audio).

For this album, the band should have renamed themselves Mike Campbell & The Heartbreakers. Longtime listeners and those who’ve seen the band in concert know what an extraordinary talent Campbell is and what a vital cog he’s been in the Heartbreaker machine and this album is his coming out party, his huge reward for years of having to keep his solos brief so as to not run afoul of the band’s motto. There are some very good blues players who could take a lesson from Campbell. He takes advantage of his first real opportunity to display his prowess not by splashing seizure-inducing flurries in every crack and crevice but by exploring and expanding on traditional blues patterns and ideas. He’s not playing anything you’ve never heard before, he’s playing the familiar but keeping it fresh by remaining tasteful and efficient.

Some of these songs take their blues cues direct from the source of the vintage sound of Chicago while others borrow from American rock bands who created an interesting way to split the blues atom for rock and roll purposes. “Takin’ My Time” and “Lover’s Touch” both mine the essential Willie Dixon songbook, the former using his unmistakable stop-time riff while the former has shades of “The Same Thing,” a song most famously associated with Muddy Waters.

On “First Flash Of Freedom,” Campbell summons the spirit of Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers Band creating that distinct twin twang of Gibson guitars. The Allmans are again summoned on “Let Yourself Go,” this time owing to way Benmont Tench recreates Gregg’s jazzy organ style beneath more great lead guitar from Campbell. “I Should Have Known It” would have sounded right at home on Aerosmith’s titanic, bloozy Rocks, boasting shrieking leads that would make Joe Perry and Brad Whitford envious.

There is one small downside to the Mojo approach. The motto that served The Heartbreakers so well for so many years yielded great hooks aplenty and some of the most memorable singles in FM radio history. This is a fantastic record on so many levels but it lacks the great singalong moments we’re so accustomed to on a Heartbreakers record, a sad casualty but a small price to pay for a record that is consistently and continually satisfying. Mojo is tough to place within the Heartbreaker discography. It stands apart from everything they’ve done which is an impressive achievement in and of itself for a band entering their fourth decade together. That they sound so damn good doing it- well, that’s not a surprise either.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Sounds good and like the Mudcrutch sessions affected Tom’s approach

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/josh-hathaway Josh Hathaway

    I think Mudcrutch and ‘Buried Treasure’ had a definite impact on the direction of this record and it is largely very effective and an excellent listen. I can’t wait to hear them in Nashville in August playing these songs against the rest of the great Petty catalog of songs.

  • Tom Johnson

    Great album, really love the loose feel of the band throughout. Guess Live Anthology’s bluesy, rootsy meandering was a bit of a preview of what we were going to see here and we didn’t even know it.

    Did you grab Amazon’s exclusive Bad Girl Boogie EP, Josh? I wish it could have been a bonus for the CD, but at $1.89, I can’t complain too much for four songs, and it’s awesome, too.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/josh-hathaway Josh Hathaway

    That EP was actually included on CD in my copy of the ‘Live At The Olympic’ DVD, so I already had it. If memory serves, those songs were mostly taken from their appearance on ‘Soundstage,’ which I also have on DVD. So, yeah, I’ve got it. The seeds of this album have been out there and they finally took root and grew into a great record.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/josh-hathaway Josh Hathaway

    LDJ will never go down as my favorite Heartbreakers record but it’s not nearly as bad as it was received by many critics and there are some very strong moments on it. Anyway, yeah, that’s the tie-in between the two.

  • http://sayitinasong.wordpress.com/ Songbird

    Hmm… never been a huge Tom Petty fan and I have to say… Mojo does not convince me… very nice review though… :o)

  • Steve B

    The song on Mojo is called I Should Have Known It. I Should Have Known Better is by The Beatles from A Hard Days’ Night.
    I saw the concert in Kansas City last night.
    The new music was well received, surrounded by classics. They opened with Listen To Your Heart and the last song was American Girl. I’d go again.