Tom Petty
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.

Some harder things stand out on the record. "I Don't Wanna Fight," another three-chord wonder, at least reveals a pulse. Campbell's voice mimics the melody of the focal guitar line. Strum, strum, strum, Campbell, who sings lead here, responds with the lines, simple but effective: "I don't wanna fight." (Repeat three times.) The loose high hat, trace of a cowbell, tambourine during the choruses and heavy bass make the song an easy crowd pleaser. It probably took about two minutes and 45 seconds to write but, hey... whatever it takes.

What has Major Hit written all over it is "I'm About to Give Out." The refrain, "I'm Davy Crockett in a coon-skin town," and, later, "I'm Will Rogers in a one-horse town," is matched in harmony with the impression of a violin or some other symphonic string instrument. Over a double-time beat, rollicking piano accents and subtle but strong rhythm guitar, the pieces come together quite well. It's unfortunate Petty didn't put more effort into the other songs on Echo. Which makes me believe Petty's part of the problem today, not the solution. Too many relatively creative songwriters concentrate on only about two or three songs and depend on their appeal alone to motivate sales. Why can't every song be worthwhile? Why is "Give Out" so much better produced and arranged than the other songs? The music's coming from the same man, right? Writing music is not like running a marathon, where some parts are easier than others. Giving in to the impulse to concentrate on developing only one or two songs per record is either a sign of laziness or an indication of dumb luck. Petty might just be a reflection of the law of averages. If one is given the freedom to write as many songs as one likes, one is bound to stumble on something useful. "Give Out" may be merely one of Petty's, as some would say, beautiful flukes.

-- Anthony Mariani

Cree Summer
Street Faerie

Singer/songwriter/actress/tall glass of hot-diggity Cree Summer is just the kind of quirky city gal who could evoke images of lush meadows and dewy mornings in people's heads. With her dark mane of frizzy, Carole Kingish hair, nose ring, tattoos and clothing straight out of Grace Slick's attic, Summer can appease those black-clad, coffee-guzzling "intellectuals" and still maintain a bond with the hemp-clad, apple juice-swigging "free thinkers." She is both urban and rural, and that's the most appealing (not to mention marketable) thing about her. On her debut, Street Faerie, Summer parlays that feel in her music into all sounds to all people.

Of course, for us cynical American folk, taking seriously a performer we once knew as Freddie, the quirky boho gal on A Different World (and, to go even further back, as the voice of Penny, the niece of TV cartoon crimefighter Inspector Gadget) is like trying to take in the musical aesthetics of Jennifer Love Hewitt. (Wait a minute!)

Luckily, Summer has someone in her corner for street credibility. With Lenny Kravitz producing and arranging the whole affair, Summer willfully leaps, much like Kravitz on his albums, from one musical style to another. Many of the songs go for that neohippie folk vibe ("Operation: Sunshine," "Life Goes On"), when not venturing into retro-soul ("Sweet Pain"), Kravitz's own patented brand of moody techno-pop ("Still Heart," "Smooth My Heart") or, oddly enough, detouring into Celtic territory ("Miss Moon," "Naheo").

There is desire in Summer's voice, which is a good thing for the musical endurance test Kravitz puts her through. She can be billowy and caressing one minute, aggressive and caustic the next.

But the main problem with Street Faerie is how Summer gets to lay on the edgy, subversive cool only to shy away into favorable predictability before the song is over. Summer is eclectic, but she also plays it safe. Too safe. A perfect example of this can be found in "Fall," which starts off sly and jazzy only to morph into an uneven, needless riot-grrrl track.

But everything isn't as securely selective as it seems. The wackiest song, if that can be said, is her climactic showstopper, "Curious White Boy," a fuzz-filled rock-funk tune in which Summer rips into the Caucasian males who have dared to take a dip in their own forbidden chocolate fantasies. ("I know your daddy and your brother too well / And his friends made me swear I wouldn't tell.")

As with every critic who sees or hears a work done by a perky, young upstart, I can only predict the Next Big Thing Cree Summer does will be better than this. Not that this album belongs in the ceremonial Best Buy bargain bin, mind you.

But I can only hope she'll take more chances with her next musical endeavor. She certainly has the drive for it. And to think, all this ambition and vitriol comes from a gal who used to do voice work for Tiny Toon Adventures.

-- Craig D. Lindsey


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