'Playback' Has Some Appealing Moments
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times - December 8, 1995
TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS | "Playback" | MCA | ★★★½
For decades in the record business, retrospective collections were generally divided into single album "greatest hits" or, for acts that didn't have all that many Top 40 hits, "best of" packages. But things are different in the CD era, where multi-disc box sets are the rage.
Labels go way beyond mere hits and noteworthy album selections to include all sorts of rarities, from previously unreleased recordings to B-sides. Call it the "Everything You Wanted From This Artist and Then Some" syndrome.
"Playback" shows you how the game is played. Only three of the six discs contain material that once would have qualified for "greatest hits" or "best of" albums.
With the Heartbreakers from the mid-'70s to the late '80s, Petty made frequently captivating and inspiring rock--guitar-driven music that spoke of life's hard promises and its heroic struggles. Discs one and two are devoted to the music of this period--from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Straight Into Darkness" and "Southern Accents."
Disc three also offers hits, but they are chiefly the far less interesting ones Petty made in the late '80s and early '90s with producer Jeff Lynne--songs, such as "Free Fallin'," that lacked the individuality and punch of his earlier recordings.
So what is left for the three remaining discs?
Quite a bit.
Disc four features some engaging B-sides, from the goofy "Gator on the Lawn" to an affectionate interpretation of Van Morrison's melancholy "I'm Tired, Joey Boy." Discs five and six are even more enticing: previously unreleased recordings that range from pre-Heartbreakers tracks to versions of songs that were later recorded by other artists (including the Stevie Nicks hit "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around") and a pair of Elvis Presley tunes recorded in 1993 ("Baby, Let's Play House" and "Wooden Heart").
It's not all essential stuff, but there's something so appealing about the raw, often experimental nature of these tracks that you wonder if every major pop or rock figure has an equal number of disarming tracks sitting in the vaults. If so, you can bet that they too will eventually find their way into a box set.