Out There

Pet rock

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Warner Bros. Records

Tom Petty's old singles ("The Waiting," "Breakdown," "Refugee," and forever so forth) make up a chunk of oldies-rock radio, and the subsequent singles (among them "I Won't Back Down" and "Into the Great Wide Open") sound little different from, well, the old songs. He's reliable as 100-degree days in August, a man forever rooted in the Byrds' psychedelic-pop jingle-jangle, Dylan's straight-from-the-nostril delivery, the Stones' barroom-by-way-of-the-arena crunch, and the Southern rock he inhaled during a childhood spent in Gainesville, Florida. Not much has changed since the earliest recordings Petty made with Mike Campbell in the band Mudcrutch 26 years ago. What you get now is what you got with him, no matter how hard (or not) he strives to break out of his God-given rut. Fact is, it's the rut that makes him so admirable; no one in the history of rock and roll has managed to do so much with "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and a voice only a mother could love.

Echo--the Heartbreakers' first record since 1996's She's the One, most notable for its funny-in-the-wrong-way cover of Beck's "Asshole"--is by-the-numbers Petty. Big Ballad. Rocker. Small Ballad. Rocker. Piano. Guitars. Organ. Guitars. Strum. Jingle. Jangle. Songs about good women, bad women, lonely women, sad women--and the sensitive tough dude who loves 'em all. And on and on till 15 songs run more than an hour, and you've got Greatest Hits Part 2 with brand-new titles slapped on them. They're never bad songs--maybe that's why he keeps rewriting them, especially the forlorn title song and "Lonesome Sunset," the catchy "Accused of Love," and "Billy the Kid," yet another Exile on Main Street rip...and so the hell what?

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There's almost something inspirational about the man's consistency, the way he tries so hard to make records that sound so slapped-together and always gets it so damned perfect. He's the one guy who makes "the middle ground" sound like a nice place to build a house, or at least a studio. Every song here sounds as if it was written 15 minutes before producer Rick Rubin--the man who made Johnny Cash sound like Johnny Cash again, who put the "AC" back in AC/DC--lit a joint, stroked his beard, and rolled tape. Nothing too slick here, which is the well-produced point: Petty's the embodiment of casual as a singer and guitarist, a man who doesn't make a point as much as he lets you figure out whether he's a put-on or a put-off--and probably the answer's somewhere in between. This is redneck rock and roll made the El Lay way, meaning only a 45-year-old millionaire would still write a rave-up called "I Don't Wanna Fight." Like, can he?

--Robert Wilonsky

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