Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
4 stars (out of 4)
Drop the needle -- metaphorically or otherwise -- on Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' devastatingly butt-kicking "Mojo," and within, oh, maybe three songs, you realize that this is Mike Campbell's album.
The Heartbreakers guitarist has always been an inspired, if subtle, picker, one capable of adding dimensions of color, texture and harmonic depth to Petty's songs. But on "Mojo," he came loaded for bear, a trusty '59 Gibson Les Paul strapped to his hip for the duration, and apparently, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page on his mind.
"Mojo" is a celebration of Campbell's musical fire, no doubt, but it's much more than that, too. Petty's songs -- tracked live in the band's rehearsal space for "Mojo" with a minimum of overdubs and a maximum of visceral wallop -- are deceptively simple pieces that blend the influence of the Byrds, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. When they strike the most resonant of emotional chords, these songs become profound rock compositions.
"Mojo" gives off the scent of a raucous, blues-based rock record, a no-frills grit-fest. Look deeper, though, and you're granted access to an inner sanctum where previous Petty pieces like "Echo," "The Golden Rose," "It's Good To Be King" and their like reign supreme. From this lofty vantage point, Petty's place in the post-'60s American rock pile is glaringly apparent. (Hint: It ain't near the bottom.)
For every garage rocker/Muddy Waters' "Electric Mud" paean "Mojo" offers -- "Jefferson Jericho Blues," "Candy," "I Should Have Known It" -- there is a full-blown slab of sunny-but-sorrowful psychedelia in the form of "Good Enough," "The Trip To Pirate's Cove," "No Reason To Cry" and "High in the Morning." These songs simply soar from the speakers, full of the ache of loss, the knowledge of dissolution, and the belief that a perfect song can dull the inevitable impact of both.
It's the seemingly effortless balance between these divergent strains that makes "Mojo" an absolute masterpiece, a rock record for the ages, and one that is on par not only with everything Petty & Co. have delivered in the past, but with proven classics like "Exile On Main St." and "Blonde On Blonde." If you fear I've overstated the case for "Mojo," you should immediately head to your favorite record store and buy it. It's that good. Maybe even better.
-- Jeff Miers
Jose James and Jef Neve
For All We Know
You'd think the major label introduction of a jazz singer as achingly sensitive as Minneapolis-born and London-based Jose James wouldn't include a grammatical solecism from the street dynamiting the verbal gymnastics of Ira Gershwin. But there it is right at the beginning of "Embraceable You" as James sings "just to look at you makes my heart tipsy in me/you and you alone brings out the gypsy in me." Yes "brings," not "bring." Normally spare and economical Belgian piano accompanist Jef Neve suddenly indulges in a flurry of notes as if he were a cat trying to bury something in a litter box but there it is forever, "brings" instead of "bring," marring an otherwise fascinating major introduction of an interesting new jazz singer.
It's just a disc-long duet with singer James and pianist Neve recorded after a James concert in Belgium. Imagine Andy Bey at his most sensitive. Subtract entirely the virile oaken quality of Bey's voice and the athleticism of Bey's sense of swing and you've got what James does here. When this guy sings "Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain," he not only pronounces the "T" in often, he sounds as if he means it so much he's finding it hard to finish the song.
There's no question that with Neve's help on piano, this takes the delicacy of male jazz singing to its furthermost point but it winds up being both simultaneously strange and compelling. Believe me, you've never heard a man sing "Tenderly" as tenderly as this before. And I'd love to hear what Billy Strayhorn would have said hearing James sing Strayhorn's "Lush Life."
After this, James is going to be tough to ignore.
-- Jeff Simon
Original Cast Album from the Music Theater of Lincoln Center
This 1965 revival recording of "Carousel" has the subtleties that make you realize how much you miss in average productions. The overture is handled so well that you can feel the carousel warming up, gathering speed, hitting full whirl, then slowing, then stopping, then starting up again -- an effect I had never really noticed before.
It's also admirable how John Raitt, the original Billy Bigelow back in 1945, still brought such an edge of dash and danger to the part. Eileen Christy, though a good Julie Jordan, is eclipsed by Susan Watson as her sidekick, Carrie, who strikes just the right balance of humor and sweetness.
You can argue forever about that controversial line about sometimes when a man hits you it doesn't hurt at all -- I still say this musical, brimming with haunting melodies, holds up well. I'm sure Richard Rodgers would agree. In one of the studio photos, you can glimpse him leaning back, looking satisfied.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Rural Route 7609
Younger siblings reading this will relate. Ever notice how, no matter what you manage to do in your life, you're just never gonna get the credit you imagine yourself deserving?
John Mellencamp might be able to wrap his head around such a scenario. For 35 years or so, he's been trying to outrun not just the early image thrust upon him by first manager Tony Defries, ("Johnny Cougar," anyone?) but also the considerable shadows cast by his older brothers Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Tom Petty. Mellencamp may have gotten off to a slow start, but by the time he delivered the late-'80s one-two punch of "The Lonesome Jubilee" and "Big Daddy," he was clearly making records that mattered as much as the ones released by the much more abundantly revered guys cited above.
Since then, he hasn't slipped, really, if you overlook the slightly "throwaway" nature of stop-gap "Dance Naked." With the release of "Trouble No More" in 2003, Mellencamp turned a new page in the book of his artistry by immersing himself in the Delta blues in such a manner that the music began seeping from his pores. Married to his already proven acumen for rock 'n' roll, folk and country tropes, the Delta blues became for Mellencamp what Van Morrison and Dylan were for Springsteen -- a context for his own songwriting.
Context, in fact, is what "Rural Route 7609" is all about. Mellencamp was loathe to compile a "greatest hits" box set, so instead, he acted as personal curator for his own art exhibit. The gorgeous packaging -- stunning sepia-toned thematic photographs, killer liner notes from rock scribe Anthony DeCurtis -- houses a four-disc tour through Mellencamp's mind, and features an emphasis on the past 10 years of his work.
There are some "hits," but the way they are so thoughtfully sequenced -- and the manner in which they butt up against deep cuts, solo renditions and demos recorded on Mellencamp's boom box -- tells the man's story as it has not been told previously. This stunning set suggests it's time to stop viewing Mellencamp as anyone's kid brother.
-- Jeff Miers