'Mojo' | ★★★½
Review by Jim Farber
New York Daily News - Monday, June 14, 2010
Reunion disc offers up real band rapport
Tom Petty let nearly a decade slip by since the last time he recorded a new album of songs with his Heartbreakers band. But, judging by this reunion disc, it seems he was hellbent on making up for lost time.
It's a disc almost entirely about the band itself -- the push and pull between the players, the groove they mine together, and the catch and release that happens in all those tricky transitions between firmly grounded riffs and high flying leads.
To capture that frisson, Petty and the Heartbreakers cut the disc entirely live, without the net, or the self-consciousness, of overdubs. Petty says his inspiration came from the brief reformation two years ago of Mudcrutch, his very first band.
If that move returned the star to his roots, he borrowed further into them by making "Mojo" a blues album, a fact telegraphed by its title. Luckily, it's hardly an orthodox one. While "Mojo" hews to the essential structure and feel of the blues, it's not just another vamp through the Muddy Waters songbook. Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell wrote original material for the disc, and they broke up its blues base with flashes of folk, psychedelic rock, even reggae.
Ducking in and out of the 12 bar forays are pretty ballads, like "No Reason To Cry," or a joke song like "Don't Pull Me Over," about about a middle aged dad who puffs pot on the sly while praying the cops don't nail him.
Some lyrics make sure to expand the common palate of the blues, never more slyly than in the opening cut, "Jefferson Jericho Blues." It's about Thomas Jefferson's famed affair with his black maid. How better to address the contradictions, and conflicts, of race, art, and ownership than that?
The music in the song, like much of what's here, honors the band's own generation, and milieu, of the blues rather than any earlier incarnation. Essentially, that means its main reference point is The Allman Brothers, a fact made obvious from the twined lead guitars in the opening track. That connection becomes even clearer in "First Flash of Freedom," which lifts the floating bass line and dancing structure of the Allman's 1969 mind-expanding track "Dreams."
The Allmans comparisons aren't always flattering. The Heartbreakers will never have the heat and mania of that storied band. But, by their own standards, "Mojo" finds in them more than the usual fire.
"Running Man's Bible" makes able use of a surging Memphis organ, a teasing guitar riff, and cackling leads, while "I Should Have Known It" comes as close as these moseying Southern guys ever will to the concussive blues of early Zeppelin. Better, it's fired by the most stinging slide lead of Campbell's career.
If, in the end, "Mojo" hasn't transformed The Heartbreakers into the world's most expansive or wild jam band, it has just enough of the looseness and freedom of boomer-era blues to show the rapport of a real band.