By Al Kaufman
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are, first and foremost, a bar band. The fact is, they are one of the best bar bands working. Put any type of American music in front of them and they will play the hell out of it. Yes, sometimes their sound is a little Yardbirds-heavy, but they can rock and groove with the best of them.
On Mojo, they show that they also know a thing or two about the blues. Petty said that he’s been listening predominantly to blues for the past 10 years or so. It was inevitable that it would come out in his music eventually. Petty and the boys also took a more bluesy attitude to the recording process. They went into the studio without so much as a demo. Songs were recorded live. The liner notes list the dates during which each song was recorded. While the dates range from May 5, 2009 to January 11, 2010, each song was wholly recorded in just one day.
Mojo opens with “Jefferson Jericho Blues.” Full of bluesy guitar licks (courtesy of Mike Campbell) and Horner Harmonica (from Scott Thurston) the song tells the sad story of “poor Thomas Jefferson/He loved the little maid out back.” It then quickly shifts to “First Flash of Freedom.” With its swirling guitars and organ (Benmont Tench), it captures that apocalyptic sound best associated with the Doors.
The CD continues in that vein; one blues song, one pop/rock song. Surprisingly, it is the blues songs, led by Petty’s recognizable southern drawl, that stand out. The mid-tempo pop songs sound comfortable and familiar, but never ignite the energy and passion that the down home blues numbers do. It was as if Petty felt he needed to add some familiar sounds, but his heart wasn’t in it (the one exception being the gorgeous “Something Good Coming”).
“Candy” is a fun, old time blues number. Full of bravado, innuendo, and backwoods humor, it practically demands the Stratocaster that Petty plays on the number. “U.S. 41” has some of that open road imagery that fans have come to expect, but is about working hard for very little. Petty adds to the mood by singing through a resonator microphone. “Lover’s Touch” engages a slow burn that harks back to Petty’s first big hit, “Breakdown.”
Petty, who has been known to engage in the herb once in a while (“Last Dance with Mary Jane” anyone?) makes his attempt at reggae with “Don’t Pull Me Over.” It doesn’t quite have the same effect as Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” or Eddy Grant’s “Police on My Back” (or even the Clash’s version of the Grant song), but it has a good reggae beat as it tells the story of a guy worried about getting pulled over by the cops for apparently peddling some ganga. Two songs later, on “High in the Morning,” he sings, in a non-pedantic, but still seemingly hypocritical way, of the dangers of drugs and power at an early age. “Hurt me to my bones/To see him high in the morning and by evenin’/See him gone.”
He comes face to face with middle age on “Takin’ My Time.” In front of some fat blues licks that would make Muddy Waters proud, he sings of slowing down and worrying about what his future has to hold: “Scares me to think about/What’s on the road after me.” They are scary thoughts made palpable by the great music.
Mojo closes with “Good Enough,” which includes a long, jam band instrumental, just in case anyone forgot Petty broke through in the ’70s, when this kind of stuff was considered really cool, man. It’s essentially Campbell showing off, but, damn, the guy deserves to every once in a while.
Mojo will not move the units that Damn the Torpedoes or Full Moon Fever did. But it shows that at an age when most artists hit cruise control, Petty still has the fire burning in his belly, and the talent to back it up.