'Mojo' rising: Tom Petty and crew have the Heartbreakers in the right place
The Boston Herald - August 18, 2010
Grouchy rock fossils love to gripe about today's music.
It's all pop pap! It's nothing but Auto-Tuned vocals and MacBook generated drumbeats!
I advise the grumpy geezers to actually listen to some of today's rock bands -- start with the Hold Steady, Black Keys and Drive-By Truckers. And then to listen to some old band's new music, namely Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' excellent "Mojo."
On their first disc since 2002's "The Last DJ," Petty and crew -- who play the Comcast Center Thursday and Saturday -- conjured their most classic-sounding album in 25 years.
"When we warm up at rehearsals we'll often play Jimmy Reed songs or other old blues songs," Heartbreakers guitarist and "Mojo" co-producer Mike Campbell said from his home in California. "Those tunes always felt really good to us, and they're part of our inspiration, but we've never tapped too much of that blues source. We wanted something that got at that source."
Oh, they got to the source alright. "Mojo" sounds like it was recorded in '65 in a Mississippi Delta shotgun shack (with occasional trips to '68 Haight-Ashbury).
Actually, it was recorded in the band's Los Angeles rehearsal space mostly in single takes with few overdubs. Six seasoned vets -- Petty, Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, guitarist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone -- in one room, playing and listening to each other play.
"(The modern recording process) is too isolated, too computerized, too about building a track up piece by piece," Campbell said. "There's nothing like a group of guys that like to play together, that have empathy and know how to play together, setting up in a room and saying, 'We're not going to overdub. The solo is going to be live, and we're not going to fix it later.' "
The liner notes are exhaustive -- charting the dates each track was recorded and which vintage instrument was used, like a rock 'n' roll game of Clue: Mike Campbell, with the 1959 Les Paul Sunburst, on "Good Enough," on September 15, 2009.
The Heartbreakers' guitarist is known as economical player. He doesn't burn through notes like Eddie Van Halen or extend songs into epic jams like Carlos Santana. But on "Mojo," Petty, who's been co-producing and co-writing songs with Campbell for decades, asked his ace to loosen up a bit.
"He said, 'Why don't we do some songs that don't fit the pop format, and if the guitar feels like it needs to go on a little bit, let's let it go,' " Campbell said. "He wanted to put the guitar right up front and let it be what it wanted to be. And putting the guitar up front really helped the album take form. Now, I don't like noodling that goes on and distracts from the song, but stretching a bit while still adding to the song is alright and that's what I tried to do."
The stretching sounds good. On "First Flash of Freedom," Campbell channels Duane Allman. On "Takin' My Time," he tunes in Jimmy Page (or is that Jack White?). And "I Should Have Known It," well, even among the Top 40 sing-along hits, the guitar solo on this new track might be the highlight of the night.
Not that we're sure to hear it at Comcast. Fresh tracks are kept to a minimum on what Campbell says in the band's "best tour ever."
"We're putting new ones in the middle as a little miniset of four or five songs, and it seems to be working out really well, people seem to know the songs and very few are heading toward the beer," he said with a chuckle. "We're going to give people the songs they paid to hear, but we're going to give them something extra too."