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Tom Petty
Echo
Warner Bros. Records

Just because an important record -- which must be reviewed -- gets a bad write-up does not mean it should be passed over by the consumer. That said, Tom Petty's new record sucks. But like most works Petty has concocted over these long, long, long 20-plus years of making music, this record is another example of how one man can stand apart from, yet in, the mainstream and effortlessly navigate between both. Classic rock radio still plays his songs. MTV still plays his videos. The hollow-jawed, small-mouthed geek with hay for hair is cool simply for being so damn annoying and ubiquitous, and for prostrating so shamelessly before the masses. In short, this record aptly explains why Petty can't write lyrics like Dylan or Springsteen, can't craft a song like Mellencamp or Hornsby and can't play a lick of guitar to save a busload of orphans, but can still sell, sell, sell. This record tells us why Petty's merely... Tom Petty, an almost-superstar who's a little bit too quick to bend over for a buck and a little bit too talentless to ever really endear listeners to his "art." You almost hear the cash registers a-chiming now.

On Echo Petty has reunited with two of his original Heartbreakers, the band that brought Petty stardom in the beginning, dissolved with his brief but huge solo success in the late '80s and is following him now into the millennium. His sound slightly reflects a return to Petty's days of yore, when all that mattered was a catchy hook and well-tuned instruments. The only thing missing here, however, is heart. But they don't call themselves the Heartbreakers for nutin'!

Part of success is not falling victim to the sound of your own plaudits a la John Lennon. People had been telling the Beatle he was so great for so long he simply stopped doing what had made him deserve that praise initially. He became a bad imitation of John Lennon, who wrote a lot of crap and got away with it, much like what has happened and is happening with Petty. Not that Petty's John Lennon. No, no, no. But that people (read: critics) have been singing the virtues of Petty's band and his nasally, poor excuse for a voice for so long the performer has become conscious of the "Petty" sound. Ergo, he now sounds like someone doing a bad imitation of Tom Petty.

But unlike most previous Petty efforts, the musicianship on Echo aspires to greatness. Original Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on organ with longtime Heartbreaker Howie Epstein on bass are actually allowed room to play around and/or solo for durations. Not long durations, mind you. But just enough to let them break a sweat while still remaining under the four-minute pop song cap. Gotta like the effort, but like any bad improv, these sounds come off as orchestrated and so desperate for radio play that anything resembling a soul is lost. If Petty's simply using these studio musings as springboards for long, improv-oriented live shows (consequent to any new release), he should find a better way to go about conveying his intentions. Stacking one solo on top of another, as Petty does on the first track, "Room at the Top," seems contrived. And it is.

On most of the songs, unedgy Petty organizes his same trite lyricism around the repetitive filler of strummed guitars. Three chords can say a lot in a Lead Belly song or one of Dylan's ballads, but not here, not in what's easily identifiable as rock and roll. Different techniques and sensibilities apply. And when Petty sings, "yeah, the same sad echo when you talk loud and clear," on the title track, he makes a nice statement, a rejected lover bemoaning his former lover's previous self. But Petty ruins the sentiment with reference (again) to drugs. This is infuriating. It's part of this whole Western pop culture ideal that says to be "edgy" you must know the ghetto, not the sociological fringes of society, but the geological fringes of society. Young, immature artists will interject images/tales/scenes of drug use and/or druggies into their lame artwork and attract the masses, while a real artist like novelist John Updike will use white, middle-class suburban dwellers to say some of the edgiest things around and see no pop interest. (Not that he wants it.) How Petty can time and time again revert to this attraction tactic is patronizing. Even on Echo, nearly every song includes something about "coming down" or "sugar" or "liquid." Junkies are cool to retards, Tom. Please get a new device.

What makes "Echo" worse is the part when Petty affects this Dylanesque delivery toward the end. As the band members play in the background, sounding as if they're barely awake -- what with a footstep beat (boom. tap. boom. tap.) and slow, slow, SLOW but loud strumming -- Petty gets raunchy. "You let me down / you dropped the ball / you fell on your face most of all." When John Spencer tries to sound like Elvis on stage, he does it with his tongue in cheek. Whatever Petty's doing is too damn near imitation to even be ironic.

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