If Dean Martin had been alive to celebrate his 89th birthday this year, he might have dropped his Titleist on the green in the hazy morning, then slipped into the dimmest booth of some Hollywood time-capsule steak house for dinner. He might have watched TV all day, hour after hour of contemptible programming crawling by without a single reference to the man born Dino Crocetti.
One thing this seemingly garrulous yet unreachable star would not have done, though, was listen to the 12 CDs compiling his Capitol Records boom of the '50s and early '60s. Plenty of the material on the albums can be dismissed, despite the charming Brylcreem ooze of Martin's modest, imperturbable baritone. For every triumph of irresistible silliness -- that is, "That's Amore" (included not on Cha Cha de Amor or Dino: Italian Love Songs but on Dean Martin Sings) -- these reissues offer two shaggy-dog shrug-alongs. Blame the troughs in listenability on the trend (pioneered for the same label by Martin's pal Frank Sinatra) of bundling songs by theme rather than by quality.
Here, then, is a guide to the highlights of three solid Martin concept records -- and five he should have made.
Album: This Time I'm Swingin'!
Concept: Martin borrows Sinatra's hat and his best arranger, Nelson Riddle.
Highs: A woozy "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"; a devilish "Heaven Can Wait"
Low: Bonus track "Choo'n Gum"
Album: Swingin' Down Yonder
Concept: Look at the cover.
High: All involved must have been very high. Still, only Martin could have sold "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."
Lows: Actually, none.
Album: Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine
Concept: Capitol leftovers capitalizing on the resurgent Martin, who pushed the Beatles out of the No. 1 spot on the singles chart in 1964 (with "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime"), for Sinatra's new label, Reprise.
High: The absurd title track
Low: The more absurd "Peddler Man (Ten I Loved)"
Album: Sings Favorite Italian Recipes
Concept: While on Capitol, Martin invested in a chain of Italian restaurants called Dino's. Really.
Highs: "Gnocchi to My Heart," "Risotto Voce"
Low: "Meatball Grinder"
Album: When I Go a-Fishin'
Concept: The riverboat gambler of Down Yonder hits the sandbar.
High: "My Tackle, Your Box"
Low: "That's My Line"
Album: Dean Martin's Craps!
Concept: The man whose death Las Vegas observed by dimming its lights rolls straight sevens with a tribute to his favorite town.
High: "Fuzzy Dice"
Low: "Poker? I Hardly Know Her"
Album: Dean Martin's Block Party
Concept: Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. shared many stages over the years, but before the wham of Sam came the shocks of Foxx. Dino works blue with black old-schoolers Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, etc.
High: Martin's musical version of the Foxx routine "Mother Frockers and Cork Suckers"
Low: The all-cast Beatles medley "The Slappy White Album"
Album: Laundry Day
Concept: Inspired by Sinatra's devastating "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," Martin recorded this bittersweet, fabric-soft set.
Highs: "Drip Dry," "Love on the Line"
Low: "Dye, Jerry, Dye" -- Scott Wilson
Good to Be King
Tom Petty's everyman act
Elvis had Memphis, Dylan will always have New York City in the '60s, and the Boss has the Jersey Shore. No matter what corner of the globe each member of America's male musical pantheon turns up in, their music maintains a sense of place -- roots to their varying strains of rock.
Tom Petty, on the other hand, suffers no such burden. Beyond a smattering of hard-core devotees, hardly anyone knows he's from Gainesville, Florida, unless they're from Gainesville, too. And aside from incidental mention, neither that city nor its matron state plays a central role lyrically for Petty. By declining to tether his songs geographically (save for an ongoing affection for Southern California, which is transient at its core), Petty has attempted, consciously or otherwise, to speak to America at large for the past 30 years -- a daunting task in a nation where every county has its own particular cultural abnormalities. Herein, he's managed to slip through the cracks and, in so doing, succeed spectacularly.
Great musicians typically share one thing in common: boundless creative range. They can serve up the high, hard heat as well as paint the corners delicately with off-speed stuff. Yet in nurturing his everyman act, the notoriously humble Petty has religiously and apolitically pitched to the middle of the plate, perhaps explaining how he's managed to keep a relatively low profile while selling more than 50 million albums.
Exempting the pioneering Presley, Dylan and Springsteen have chosen to genre-jump liberally, all the while plying the peaks and valleys of their emotional experience. Meanwhile, Petty's songs, while topically dynamic, seem more even-keeled. Petty never appears fit for a straitjacket, just a little bent out of shape at times; and his compositions are the portrait of consistency and intimacy -- never any bigger than the listeners themselves.
While these are attributes that tend not to break an artist from the pack, they also serve as a lake cabin of sorts for those who've been led down a perilous path. As sometime collaborator Stevie Nicks once told Billboard magazine: "Tom Petty's songs are like a great book that you revisit when you need help."
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Conversely, Petty is also one of the few performers who can sap the uncertainty out of psychedelic drugs. Anyone who's seen Petty live knows that the mind-blowing "Don't Come Around Here No More" can turn even the brownest acid bright yellow. This complex, deliciously layered track is something of an anomaly for Petty -- a kaleidoscopic wink at the sunshine daydream. But by and large, Petty has left the Haight-Ashbury set to itself. Someone's got to carry the red states, after all.
There have been rampant rumors that the current run that Petty is on with his Heartbreakers may be the band's last full-bore tour. Meantime, Petty has released a charmingly melancholy new solo album, Highway Companion, that's as evocative as 1994's splendid Wildflowers. The two strongest tracks on the new release are ballads: "Damaged by Love," which explores the passionate pitfalls of young love, and "Down South," which pays lyrical homage to the late Warren Zevon ("Gonna see my daddy's mistress / Gonna buy back her forgiveness / Pay off every witness") while melodically resembling "Walls," the hit single from the 1996 She's the One soundtrack, an Ed Burns-helmed chick flick for thirtysomething guys that Petty scored all by his lonesome. Yet when Petty lets the gasket blow mid-album with "Big Weekend," he does so sans nuance. Hence, the literal weekend-warrior chorus: "I need a big weekend / Kick up the dust / Yeah, a big weekend / If you don't run, you rust." Mike Reno only wishes he could achieve such lyrical grace.
Still, Highway Companion is a deliberately small album, which is de rigueur for Petty, who's never been one to make any grand proclamations about the state of the union. Rather, his songs might focus on a wayward couple in a town, population 30,000, hashing out their differences at twilight over buck-fifty Buds in a basement saloon a block off State Street. If and when they kiss and make up, maybe they wander down the hill to the fairgrounds to dance, drink and strip in the bushes. Or maybe they end it once and for all, then and there. We can all relate, which is what Petty presumably wants us to do. -- Mike Seely
Tom Petty appears Saturday, August 5, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Trey Anastasio is also on the bill. For more information, call 713-629-3700.