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Tom Petty - Highway Companion Print E-mail
Friday, 01 September 2006

Tom Petty

Highway Companion
format: 16-bit CD
performance: 9
sound: 9
release year: 2006
label: American
reviewed by: Dan MacIntosh

Image Choosing Tom Petty as your highway companion is a no-brainer. He has no obvious annoying or distracting habits. He knows how to relax in the car. Best of all, he’s not a motor mouth. But whenever this transplanted Floridian sings, nuggets of golden travel wisdom flow.

The title Highway Companion perfectly sums up this CD’s travel theme, because the road can lead you where you think you should be going, or it can be your handy escape route out of a bad situation. “It’s hard to say/Who you are these days/But you run on anyway,” Petty admits on “Saving Grace.” Over a nasty, John Lee Hooker blues rock groove, this song expresses the hope that constant motion will somehow mysteriously produce the desired side effect of self-discovery. Then on “Big Weekend,” Petty warns, “If you don’t run, you rust.” Motion is compulsory, not voluntary. “Night Driver” describes a “Night driver/Drifting home again,” and outlines those times when you just let fate take the wheel, and pray you make it back to your kin. Lastly, “Square One” describes the act of coming full circle. “It took a long time to get back here,” Petty sighs. Sometimes we waste tanks of gas, only to realize we never should have set out in the first place. Petty, our faithful travel buddy, has seen his share of road warriors and road worriers. Many of these drifters make appearances on this disc, like hitchhikers picked up in one town, then dropped off at another down the road. But their stories stay with the vehicle, like bodily impressions on leather interior.

Petty’s best new lyric is found on “Damaged by Love,” which documents permanent wear and tear caused by accumulated emotional road miles. It’s about a girl way too young to hurt so bad. She “Keeps broken hearts/To fix up and sell,” Petty tells us, and “She’s got nothing to hide/And she hides it so well.” “Flirting with Time,” with its big, loping acoustic guitar-driven groove, might also be about this same sad girl. On it Petty sings, “Every punch line has your name.” With its beautifully warm Rickenbacker guitar solo, it is the only place where Petty’s familiar Byrds jones shines through.

Highway Companion reunites Petty with producer Jeff Lynne. Lynne has not created the stark beauty Rick Rubin brought to Wildflowers, but to his credit, he did not once again force-feed those godawful chirpy backing vocals that marred 1989’s Full Moon Fever, a prior Lynne/Petty collaboration. Although it is not an “official” Heartbreakers release, guitarist Mike Campbell’s axe is all over this collection. Even if this longtime Heartbreaker’s name had been cruelly left off the credits, most smart rock fans would still recognize his distinctive extended-note solos. The absence of keyboardist Benmont Tench prevents this CD from turning into a Heartbreakers-by-any-other-name project. Furthermore, keyboards are conspicuous by their near-inaudibility, and only pop up briefly during a solo on “This Old Town,” and as organ-ic support for “Down South.”

Petty sings "Down South" in a Bob Dylan cadence, where he packs as many syllables into each line as vocally possible. It may be the only instance where Petty delivers in Dylan-sing, but Tom’s current writing style points directly back to Dylan’s enjoyably mystical vagaries. In a few cases, as with “Damaged By Love,” Petty has a specific person in mind. But more often than not, it’s tough to tell if he’s singing about himself, someone he knows, or perhaps a composite of us all. This intentional lack of positive identification is a clever move, because it allows listeners to put themselves into the songs. After all, everybody’s felt like they were driving blind at least once. “Down South,” which follows a Southern journey, still fits this disc’s travelogue thread. But its lyric, about dressing like Mark Twain and such, would have better matched Petty’s 1985 Southern Accents release, where this Florida man reconnected uncomfortably with his Southern roots. But because Petty does one of the best unintentional Dylan impressions, let’s be glad he left it on the disc.

It is safe to say Petty will never win any trophies for his singing. But this new work reminds us again of his subtle, perhaps underappreciated, vocal skills. He can make his voice warbly and vulnerable whenever he’s behaving uncertainly or feeling empathetic. Yet he can also turn around and spit out words in an angry aural sneer. In “Jack,” he’s stubbornly authoritative: he’s going to get his baby back, no question. But most often, Petty is heard wondering aloud, pointing out landmarks along the way, and relating how these sightings make him feel. He never plays the know-it-all, encyclopedia on wheels. At times, in fact, he appears completely ignorant of the world passing by his passenger window; as if the unfamiliar terrain outside helps him focus inwardly. Such kindly compatibility makes him everyone’s favorite carpooler.

Despite its many benefits and artistic MPG, Highway Companion is still an incomplete Thomas Guide for the soul. True, it is packed with places of interest, and sure beats your daily point A to point B commute. But it is not the one-stop, MapQuest, step-by-step GPS directive to anyone’s spiritual/psychic/metaphysical destination. Everyone’s life route is unique, so go find your own yellow brick road and do not leave all the driving to Tom.

Petty hits the road with no final destination in mind; he’ll know where he’s going once he gets there. Just don’t let this lack of predestination scare you off. After all, it is the journey, not the final destination that makes a trip memorable. Heck, Highway Companion might make even a trip to the corner store noteworthy.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO days were marked by a more-is-always-better attitude when it came to production. His group, after all, called itself a rock orchestra, which meant its recordings sported string parts up the wazoo. But you’d never pick up on Lynne’s past from listening to Highway Companion. It is by no means minimalist or lo-fi, but Lynne has wisely only included what fits comfortably, with hardly a note more. Handclaps give “Saving Grace” extra zip, but they’re not overdone, nor do they stand out like sore thumbs (plus fingers) in the overall mix. “Big Weekend” has a sweeping acoustic strum feel to it, which immediately reminds you of the Traveling Wilburys. But that all-star group’s music often felt forced to me, and was more structured then it needed to be. But Petty’s new solo release has the looseness the Wilburys always strived for but rarely achieved. Everything comes together naturally, as both Petty and Lynne exemplify the benefits of traveling light.

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