Petty's Fans Get Lucky, as Usual
Review by James Sullivan
The San Francisco Chronicle - April 11, 1999
Not for Petty the shiny lacquers or trendy flourishes of so many of his rock-radio counterparts, and that's his simple secret. "Echo," his 11th studio album, due in stores Tuesday, is exactly what rock fans have always expected of him -- a little bit of folk-psychedelia and a lot of sturdy rock 'n' roll. The surprise is that he's kept his career on such an even keel for so long.
Rarely has the gangly 48-year-old made concessions to glossy production or stylization, and here he sounds just as cool, calm and collected as ever. More of our mass-appeal pop celebrities should be so lucky; witness the excitement that surrounded Petty's recent return engagement at the Fillmore, when Courtney Love was just one of several famous musicians in the crowd.
He's not totally oblivious to what's going on in the next yard. The album's first track, "Room at the Top," suggests that someone in the band has been listening to Ben Folds Five: The song's sawing foundation bears more than a passing resemblance to the cello in "Brick."
"Room at the Top" begins with some homely phrasing, too. But just when you think the song might be a misstep, lifelong Petty sidekicks Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench let rip with a nice psychedelic sequence featuring dueling guitar and harpsichord solos.
From there the pressure's off. Through 14 more tunes, Petty combines straight-ahead lyrics ("Counting on You," "This One's for Me") with some left-leaning values. As usual, it sounds like he's wearing rose-colored glasses in a wheat field.
The first single, "Free Girl Now," is sheer stubbornness, a three-chord rocker that's so plain it's irresistible. Petty has made a career of such simplicity -- it could be said that "Breakdown," from his first album, is the most innovative thing he's done.
Campbell, who hosted the "Echo" sessions at his home studio, is granted a turn as leader on one of his own tunes, "I Don't Wanna Fight." His voice resembles Petty's so much on the track, the change almost goes unnoticed.
As always, Petty's voice stands out for its distilled Dylan influence. There have been scores of "new Dylans" over the years, of course, but Petty's most distinctive vocal tic makes him one of the truest -- he has that familiar tendency to rev a nasally vowel like a lawn tool (ooOOoo, eeEEee).
Another Petty quirk is his preoccupation with celebrity names ("take back Joe Piscopo!"). "Swingin' " is a mid-tempo harmonica wheezer on which he name-drops Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Sammy Davis. Thankfully, it's got none of the faddish swing-revival sound that the title might suggest. The song, of course, is a straight- ahead rocker. It's also one of the record's finer moments.
"You and me been over this ground before," Petty sings on "Won't Last Long." The song's complete refrain is "I'm down, but it won't last long." He's too modest: Actually, he's hardly ever been down.