Petty: Old Reliable
By Roger Catlin
Hartford Courant - April 15, 1999

ECHO |Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers | Warner Bros. Records
You have to credit Tom Petty for his reliability.

Every few years he emerges, laconically, with his crooked smile, bringing another batch of rock songs, never once bowing to prevailing trend. It has been a long time since a Tom Petty album -- even longer since a regular, full studio album with the Heartbreakers. (His previous release, in 1996, was a soundtrack "She's the One"; 1994's "Wildflowers" was technically a solo album; aside from a greatest-hits collection and a boxed set, the only other thing this decade from the band was 1991's "Into the Great Wide Open.")

A lot has happened since then, including a long-running marriage that ended in divorce. Some of that sadness ekes out of "Echo." But more often he tries his hardest to look on the bright side and keep things rocking a bit harder than he has in the recent past.

The album is a lot like the first track, "Room at the Top," in that it begins slowly and builds. Although each song is unmistakably Petty, influences of his former Traveling Wilburys cohorts pop through, with a George Harrison-style guitar on "Counting on You," and a Dylanesque spoken plea at the center of the title track, an emotional epic on which the album turns.

Other places, though, he makes it sound as if all the rock songs already have been written, so that "No More" essentially rewrites the Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth"; and a song about freeing abuse, "Free Girl Now," echoes Three Dog Night's "Shambala," of all things.

Some images seem to return quite often as well, especially boxing terms. One character "goes down swingin"' in one track; "Billy the Kid" battles on another track. In the debut of Mike Campbell's singing voice, he declares: "I Don't Wanna Fight."

It's good, overall, that Petty is still working with Rick Rubin, who adds a more natural sound to the band than Jeff Lynne did. As a songwriter, Petty has reached a new level, where he doesn't need to try so hard to make everything work. On "Echo," which sounds better with every listening, he makes it all look easy.