The Listening Post: September 2010

Autumn brings earth tones.

  • MojoTom Petty And The Heartbreakers. After a lot of time wandering in the wilderness in search of real inspiration, Tom Petty has come back with his strongest set of tunes since 1994’s Wildflowers. That’s not really saying much since this is only his fourth album in 16 years, but that doesn’t underestimate the strength of these albums. What’s interesting on Mojo is how Petty has reclaimed his muse by going back to his roots. There’s a strong bluesy feel to a lot of this, but the best tracks on the album are the ones that are the strangest in terms of Petty’s repertoire. “First Flash of Freedom” features an extended psychedelic instrumental section that sounds like the Doors jamming on an alternate take of “Light My Fire,” with Mike Campbell channeling Robbie Krieger. “The Trip To Pirate Cove” uses a ghostly backing vocal to augment a haunted tale. “No Reason To Cry” is a countrified ballad, and a beautiful one. “I Should Have Known It” is a bruising rocker. On the other hand, “Don’t Pull Me Over” simply proves that Petty should steer far away from reggae, “U.S. 41” and “Lover’s Touch” are strictly compose-by-numbers, and “Something Good Coming” is a decent ballad that never goes anywhere. Clocking in at over an hour, Mojo is about 15 minutes too long, but is still a worthy listen, thanks mainly to Mike Campbell’s excellent guitar throughout and the bar-band spirit that the Heartbreakers manage to inject into the songs.
    Grade: B+
  • Tons Of SobsFree. It is immediately apparent upon listening to Tons of Sobs that the début album by Free was logging a lot of time on Jimmy Page’s turntable in 1968. While most knowledgeable music fans know that Page borrowed an enormous amount of sound from Jeff Beck’s Truth, the debt that the mighty Zeppelin owe to Free is a less well-known story. After the Moody Blues-ish opener “Over the Green Hills, Part 1” Tons of Sobs explodes into a molten meltdown of British blooze, led by Paul Kossoff’s ferocious guitar playing and Paul Rodgers’s impassioned and soulful vocals. “Worry” features jagged, circular guitar lines that will shred your eardrums, and there’s a terrific version of Albert King’s “The Hunter.” While most of the songs suffer from the sameness of sound and performance that dogs a lot of the Brit blues albums of the late Sixties, there’s no denying that each track represents this mutant strain of heavy blues at a peak, and the album as a whole doesn’t have time to get boring since it begins and ends in less than 40 minutes. What this album represents is a template for what heavy rock would sound like in the 1970s. While other bands may have taken the sound further and done more with it, the debt that bands as diverse as Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Foghat owe to Free is enormous. And Free had a better lead singer than any of those bands, and a guitarist who could hold his own with any of his more famous peers.
    Grade: A-
  • Taj MahalTaj Mahal. L.A.’s Rising Sons were considered one of the can’t miss bands of the club circuit, gifted with the extraordinary guitarist Ry Cooder and, in band leader Taj Mahal, a vocalist with more grit and soul than any of his peers. Despite some fine recordings, however, The Rising Sons never hit. Ry Cooder went on to a semi-legendary career playing with nearly everyone under the sun, and Taj Mahal became the oddest of birds: a blues cult artist. Despite a great reputation with the critics, Taj never had mainstream success as a blues player because his music included everything from folk to world music. But in 1967, the début album was a straightforward collection of great blues tunes featuring sublime slide guitar from Taj, extraordinary lead guitar from Jesse Ed Davis, and the virtuoso Ry Cooder playing rhythm. Add in a rhythm section that practically defines the term “in the pocket,” cover it with the magnificently gruff vocals by Taj, and you’ve got one of the single best blues albums you’re ever likely to hear. There’s only one original song, “E Z Rider” but the covers are smartly chosen to highlight the band. Taj sets up Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” and delivers a hit to the Allman Brothers who stole his arrangement. Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” gets a passionate reading with stinging slide guitar worthy of Elmore James. “Leaving Trunk,” “Everybody Got To Change Sometime” and “Diving Duck Blues” are electrified translations of the acoustic country blues of Sleepy John Estes, and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checking Up On My Baby” gets sped up and swings like a Louisville Slugger. At nearly nine minutes, “The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues” drags a bit, but only a bit, and that drag is a smallest of nits to pick on an otherwise extraordinary album.
    Grade: A

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