sábado, julio 24, 2010

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - "Mojo" (2010)


Poor old Tom Petty, kindness is his ruin. In 2008 he wanted to reach out to his original bandmates and offer them some sort of karmic justice, reforming Mudcrutch in an attempt to share a taste of the stardom he achieved with the Heartbreakers, the band he formed right after Mudcrutch disbanded. The result of that was Mudcrutch (2008), an album leaning on the country undertones of Petty’s sound, decidedly retro but rightfully so (after all, it was Tom trying to seize back his mid-70s inflections), while managing to maintain the strengths of Petty’s songwriting. Two years later and back with the Heartbreakers, Mojo finds Petty still on a generosity streak, as this time he has decided to assemble his new album around Mike Campbell’s guitar, taking an authorial sidestep to showcase his band’s skills with a sound that bets hard on blues rock, in an unlikely turn from Petty’s usual style. This time, however, the gamble doesn’t pay-off too well.

Ironically enough, the problem with Mojo is its lack of mojo. Impeccable musically, technically and all –a feat, considering the album was recorded mostly “live” and on single takes, but not a surprise given the accolades of the musicians involved–, the album just doesn’t seem to have a soul, a driving force other than the wish to churn out bluesy riffs and sail a sea of classic rock conventions with the panache of knowing how awesome performers the Heartbreakers are. Take the opening track, “Jefferson Jericho Blues”, a narrative stab at Chicago’s Blues tradition which has everything in the right place (rampant soloing guitars, a steady rhythmic drive, harp riffs, etc) but fails to reveal why a band like this would be interested in cutting its teeth on such run-of-the-mill material. Yet, with its quasi-garage intensity, this is one of the highlights of the album. Apart from adopting the sound of vintage blues rock, Mojo embraces its canonical iconography as well, with lyrics plagued by booze (“Well I don’t drink Coca Cola/But I sure like that old moonshine”, sings Petty in “Candy”, which contains most of the aforementioned clichés), mean women, preachers, old cars and endless highways. Sure that simplicity and straightforwardness mimic the spirit of early electric blues –which Petty cites, along with “southern landscapes”, as the inspiration for the album–, but the real problem is that Petty doesn’t own the songs and, in spite of shining its mastery through them, the band too has troubles inhabiting the material beyond a mere epidermic approach, failing to do what (as past year’s monumental The Live Anthology proves) has always been one of their strengths: a very clever way for re-imagining classic rock staples.

Perhaps “First flash of freedom”, a strange hybrid that sounds a lot like The Doors take on the blues, with its slow-as-melting-ice aura and introspective lyrics, is the only standout; the sole Mojo song that could blend in with the rest of Petty’s songbook. But it is not a matter of weak songwriting, since even on the songs where the band is supposed to be on fire (“I should have known it”) it struggles to ignite. Although after the bland duo of “Candy” and “No reason to cry” (the latter with a bit of the jangly guitars that made Petty famous), “U.S. 41” more clearly transpires Chess Records’ biting genome; thereafter, the band quickly stumbles in the increasingly-washed-out shadow of Jimmy Page’s hard rock riffing (“Takin’ my time”), just to crash in the painfully naïve, mock-reggae of “Don’t pull me over” –the lowest point of the album, for sure.

Fifteen songs later, the mystery still haunts us: Why did Tom Petty suddenly develop a taste for reflecting the past through his music? In the short documentary accompanying the album (found on Petty’s YouTube channel), he explains that he wanted to show people “what [music] the band hears (…) where the band lives when it’s playing for itself”. For this they conjure the names of true heavyweights, as Mike Campbell lists them: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reid, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, in what is a fair attempt at reconciling with a side of rock’s history that the band hasn’t explored. But such rationale forgets that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a rock’n’roll institution on their own. And that’s not a minor detail.

On the other hand, the “going for the roots”/”back to the basics” speech usually conceals the fact that an artist is getting old and revels in past day’s swagger, imagining how it is still possible to connect with his muse by following the wisdom of the ones that came before him. And unless your name is Nick Cave (in which case you deal with age by playing fire-breathing vitriol à la Grinderman), “back to the basics” often means diving in the tried-and-true pool of older music. However, in the case of Petty such a move rings as contradictory by nature, not only as a side effect of blues’ overexposure, but due to Petty’s status as a master of pop tunes which, while rooted in rock tradition, reflect on the feelings of utterly postmodern individuals, capturing the woes and joys of life in suburban environments. The musical style chosen to convey such motifs is just one of multiple creative avenues open for their taking, as Petty sure knows. With an album filled with blues songs lacking in originality, fierceness and else, one is left to wonder if there weren’t other paths, truer to what Petty can do as a musician. Whatever the case, Petty has deemed Mojo to be a simple snapshot –albeit a very forgettable one–, and hopefully it is just that: “A Polaroid more than a painting”. Speaking of which, I still remember going to the barbershop carrying a copy of Damn the torpedoes’ sleeve, telling the barber to style my hair following Petty’s classic bangs. Perhaps sick of looking at the same grinning blonde guy every month, the barber insisted on me getting a picture of myself sporting the haircut instead. I never did it, for you can’t mimic a classic. And that could be the recipe Tom Petty needs to remember right now; he is the classic he is looking for, there is no need to go back to Chicago (or elsewhere, for that matter) to come up with gut-wrenching tunes. All we need in order to feel the same kind of thrill Chess classics give us is the perfect pop of the Heartbreakers. And that’s your mojo, Tom.

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