Album of the Week: Damn the Torpedos, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

If there’s one artist that dances around the fringes of this blog without ever getting his full due, it is unquestionably Tom Petty. He makes an appearance every now and then, but has never gotten his own blog post.

And that’s just not right, because he’s one of the musicians I admire the most. He succeeds at the most difficult part of rock & roll, which is making the same six chords sound completely different every time he plays them. He is relentlessly innovative within fairly tight harmonic constraints, but has been churning out hits since the mid-70s. Stop to consider for a moment that “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” one of his most iconic songs, came out in 1993.

Damn the Torpedos is a masterclass in Petty’s sand-blasted style. There is almost no fat anywhere on this album, from the boldly spare cover on through.

“Refugee” is so embedded in the cultural consciousness that it’s tough to get any critical distance on it, but it is perhaps the quintessential introduction to the band’s style. Petty and the Heartbreakers, especially on this song, are a very treble-heavy band, and I think that makes Benmont Trench’s organ all the more important. It provides a more expansive, meaty sound that prevents the band from sounding brittle, especially as Petty squawks out the chorus.

“Here Comes My Girl” wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming out of the Brill Building in the early ‘60s. The narration gives it this great girl-group feel—like a less-tragic “Leader of the Pack”—and I love how much sonic space there is on the track. To help understand what I mean by that, listen to this song and then listen to “Down to the Waterline,” by Dire Straits, which was released a year earlier. Both songs have this really dry, trebly sound, but “Here Comes My Girl” sounds expansive while “Down to the Waterline” is quietly but insistently in your face.

There is one major gripe I have with this album, which is that it falls victim to the gimmick of putting bits of nonsense in between tracks. It’s nice in that it gives every song a little room to breathe, but I always wish I could cut out the first twenty or so seconds of tracks like “Even the Losers.” Band mythology has it that they went in to record this song without a chorus, and Petty wrote it on the spot.

“Shadow of A Doubt (Complex Kid),” is my favorite track on the album. This song has such incredible energy, which is interesting because it’s not particularly fast. The guitar figure that prominently features in the first fifteen seconds is a Keith Richards signature lick, but he always plays it about twice as fast (listen to “Brown Sugar”). So the fact that Mike Campbell plays it more slowly suspends the listener’s ear—you keep waiting for the second part of the figure to come, driving the song forward. The tension derives more from the rhythm than from the notes, and I think that might be part of Petty’s secret. He doesn’t need to use more chords because he knows other ways to create the tension a good song needs. Subtle, but effective.

I’ve always loved the back-alley feel of the intro to “You Tell Me” (just like the video for “Refugee!”). The descending piano figure coupled with the yowling slide guitar give it a great cinematic feel. It’s one of the Heartbreaker’s finest moments on the album, and they sustain this menace throughout. It’s a needed change to the palate at this point in the album and all the more effective because of it.

The album’s closer, “Louisiana Rain,” is its only misstep. This country ballad might have worked fine with a more finessed vocal delivery than Petty can muster, but it would also be hard to overcome the clunky lyrical image of rain pouring out of the narrator’s ears. The whole thing is just a little bit self-indulgent, which no song on an album like this can afford to be.

Just like the titular torpedo, this album works best when it delivers a quick, concentrated, and devastatingly efficient blast of rock & roll—something that was increasingly difficult to find in the late 70s. There are no terribly elaborate intros, no overly lengthy guitar solos. It’s more refined than a punk record, but still pulses with the same vitality, and it’s understandable why Petty and the Heartbreakers were first grouped in with the New Wave movement. But at its base, the music Petty was making here evolved out of the early 60s rather than the late 70s. Nevertheless, it’s solid, timeless music. Like sharks, crocodiles, and the Rolling Stones, Petty and the Heartbreakers have survived because they’ve remained simple and deadly. Can’t ask for much more.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 10-6

There’s nothing I love more than year-end Top 10 lists. Someone at Pitchfork is probably declaring the Top 10 list dead even as I write this, but for the rest of us they’re a great way to catch up on all the music you might have missed this year while you were brushing your teeth or whatever. And because every person will build a different list, they’re also a great opportunity for polite, thought-provoking discussion, or more accurately, a good excuse to defriend someone because FKA twigs’ album didn’t even crack their top 5.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see some familiar names on here, but there’s also plenty of new faces (spoiler alert: no FKA twigs. Sorry.) We’ll do numbers 10 through 6 tonight, and then return with the final five next week.

10. Back to the Shack, Weezer

I can’t pretend to be more than a casual Weezer fan, and I was introduced to the band at kind of a weird time—right in the “Beverly Hills” era. So “Back to the Shack” doesn’t really succeed in making me nostalgic for 1994, especially because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t sound a hell of a lot like Golden Era Weezer (“Buddy Holly,” “Undone,” etc.). The lyrics are a little cringe-worthy; I think if you have to write a song about how you’re rocking again, you’re likely not.

But damn it if this isn’t a catchy, bouncy tune from the Weez. It’s actually probably most like “Beverly Hills” in that it’s big on pop fun and relatively low on angst. For me, it’s always good to hear a new Weezer song on the radio, because it proves that the power-chord punk-pop that I grew up with is still alive out there somewhere, and Rivers Cuomo et al. are the guardians of the flame.

9. I’m Not the Only One, Sam Smith

Is it too easy to call Sam Smith the male Adele and be done with it? Both Brits sing modern pop that is a distant descendent of Dusty Springfield, and both have heart-stopping, jaw-dropping voices. “I’m Not the Only One” is Smith’s “Rumour Has It,” slightly more up-tempo than the first big single, and similarly about cheating on someone. As Smith hits the chorus, the effortless transition to falsetto along with the word “crazy” calls to mind Cee Lo Green circa Gnarls Barkley. If you don’t like this song, you must be some kind of monster. Which is ok, I guess.

8. Sins of My Youth, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, of all people, deserved a number one album this year. Not necessarily because Hypnotic Eye was the best album of 2014, but because they are an American institution, and in my opinion, kept rock & roll alive when everyone else had left it to rot. “Sins of My Youth” is the quietest moment on the record, a meditation on mistakes made and left forgotten. Texturally, it’s a sonic treat, with beautifully rich tremolo guitars and Steve Ferrone’s dry, close-mic’d drums. It’s a little reminiscent of “Riders on the Storm” in some stray moments but it’s much more accessible, and nowhere near as bloated.

7. My Wrecking Ball, Ryan Adams

I spent a lot of this summer and fall trying to explain to people that I wasn’t talking about 80’s hitmaker Bryan Adams. This is the solid-gold truth, and not a lame attempt at the least creative joke in history.

Ryan Adams has been around for a good long while and is wildly prolific (equal emphasis on “wild” and “prolific”), but there was a three-year gap between his last album and his release this year. “My Wrecking Ball” is one of the songs I liked best off of it, and it’s served as my entry point to the rest of Adams’ catalogue. It’s an alt-country ballad in the best tradition about the death of his grandmother. The first verse, with its implicit comparison between a beat-up car and the narrator is beautifully and starkly heartbreaking.

Also, Adams’ set at Newport Folk this year convinced me that it would be a blast to see him live—it not only rocks super hard, but is also funny and genuine. Listen to it here.

6. Drive-In Movies, Ray LaMontagne

This song finally sold me on Ray LaMontange. His typically powerful voice is turned down here, creating a dusty, breathy sound rather than the full bellow he summons most of the time. Musically, the track is a slick slice of Americana, with steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and an easy-rocking tempo. There’s some definite Byrds-like sparkle to the production as well. Lyrically, it’s a nice vignette of a slightly wayward youth spent sneaking cigarettes and blowing pocket money at the drive-ins. I’m not sure how many drive-ins there are left in the country now, but there was at least two within an hour of where I grew up, and LaMontagne captures them perfectly. I miss those drive-in movies too, Ray.