Friday, August 28, 2009

Tom Petty 5: Southern Accents

Tom Petty had gained carte blanche to do anything he wanted, and since it was unlikely he’d stray too far from the basic mold he’d set for himself, his label was content to let him create at his own pace. By the time his next album came out, he had gone through the proverbial wringer, from three producers in addition to himself and Mike Campbell, a promising but ultimately aborted double album concept, and most notoriously, a broken hand that nearly removed him from any guitar-playing duties.
Southern Accents retains some of that original spirit, of encapsulating the South that (most of) the band knew from growing up in Florida. From the start, the narrator of “Rebels” proclaims his drunkenness while asserting his pride in his heritage. But the camera turns temporarily away from this shady character to go on a trip with Dave Stewart, then riding high with Eurythmics on his own shift from techno-pop to ‘60s soul. “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” is a great song, but it hardly sounds like the Heartbreakers had much to do with it. (Indeed, one wonders how they really felt about it.) But there’s no mistaking the appeal of “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, a hypnotic trip through the same three chords with the title repeated at different tempos, forever linked to that amazing video that put the band right down the rabbit hole. (And since it was a hit, the band had more fun playing it onstage for years afterward, while their leader donned the Mad Hatter’s hat and shadowy figures masked with the faces of Nixon, Reagan and Bush ran around a tree only to be repelled by a giant peace sign.) As the psychedelia fades away, the title track comes gently in, and we join our rebellious hero from earlier in the side on one of Petty’s best songs.
Those already sick of Dave Stewart would not be pleased with “Make It Better (Forget About Me)”, another misplaced soul track. Instead, they’d be best advised to skip ahead to “Spike”, a cool mix of swamp and jazz that tells a tale of another misfit from the point of view of a redneck holding up his end of the bar. This would also work best onstage where Petty extrapolated some on the song’s influence, and it would seem that right when the onstage story reached the moment of uttered profanity, the song on the record switches back to the intro, fading on the sound of a dog panting. That’s where “Dogs On The Run” comes in, delivering a song worthy of the band’s reputation, with just enough soul to make it derivative. After this pinnacle the album slows down, first through the somewhat experimental (read: insubstantial) “Mary’s New Car” and the big finish, “The Best Of Everything”. Produced by Robbie Robertson and featuring other alumni of The Band, it seems like it’s supposed to be some kind of finale, but given the detours we’ve endured, it will have to be just a song.
Southern Accents is a good album despite what it tried and failed to be. At the very least, it gave Petty a reason to wear wacky sunglasses, top hats and paisley shirts while his band held down the fort behind him. They had another hit, and would go on another journey as soon as they finished their own tour.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Southern Accents (1985)—

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