Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have long been difficult to categorize. They're mainstream rock, that's for sure, but they've always been a bit more -- or perhaps just a bit better than most.
When the band's self-titled debut album surfaced in 1976, it spawned the singles "American Girl" and "Breakdown," quirky, original little tunes that still find airplay today. They followed it up in 1978 with You're Gonna Get It! While not an outstanding release, it solidified them as a band to watch out for. It was 1979's Damn the Torpedoes with "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl" that catapulted Petty and the band to stardom. With a sound sometimes compared to The Byrds, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers had finally become the mainstream of American rock band.
They followed Torpedoes with what I feel is their best album, Hard Promises -- somewhat less accessible but the most musically satisfying. Next they added a little more of an electronic sound to their own and released the disappointing Long After Dark. While OK, it was not a progression over Promises. Following that came a live album and some others, but Petty eventually went on his own to record his very successful Full Moon Fever solo album and even did some time with The Travelling Wilburys. For the most part it seemed that the Heartbreakers, as we knew them at least, were history.
Although 1991's Into the Great Wide Open achieved fine success for the group, Petty's own name seemed to overshadow that of the other band members. Petty then put out another solo album, the excellent Wildflowers, which seemed to seal the fate of the group. Then, quite by surprise, came the soundtrack to She's the One which was some of the group's best work since Hard Promises. There was a relaxed and confident sound on She's the One that seemed a sign that perhaps the group had more work to do.
Now we have Echo, which is surprisingly close to the band's best music-making. Echo has most of the originals -- Tom Petty, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench -- and also includes Howie Epstein, who came to the band during Long After Dark.
In some ways Echo is reflective of the 20-plus-year history of the band, yet it still sounds fresh. While it contains its fair share of traditional rockers that the Heartbreakers have become known for -- "About To Give Up" and "One More Day, One More Night" for example -- it is also reminiscent of the folk-tinged Promises, with cuts like "Lonesome Sundown," "No More," "Echo" and the more darkly played "Counting On You" and "Swingin'." "Room at the Top" is an excellent first single, and I don't doubt "Free Girl Now" will see considerable airplay. What makes Echo work so well is the tightness, control and confidence the band exhibits. There are many gems here, and Campbell's guitar and Tench's piano are as tuneful as ever. Unlike some groups that sound stale with age, the familiarity of the Heartbreakers seems to have refined and even improved their sound. Although Petty's voice is familiar, it does not sound like it does on a Petty solo album, and he's lost that jingle-janglyness he liked so much during the late '80s and early '90s. Instead, Echo sounds, in terms of musical quality, like the work of the Heartbreakers of old.
Petty and Campbell share production credits along with Rick Rubin. The sound is open, clean and well-defined with a very wide and detailed spread of instruments. It has good dynamics and excellent tonal balance, with most instruments well-captured. It's laced, like many pop/rock recordings, with a bit of steeliness that is most apparent on guitars, but mostly the sound is very good.
Echo is an excellent capping for the career of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It's also one of the pleasant surprises of 1999. After some 20 years, it's nice to see a band improving and not just hashing out the same old stuff. Frankly, I'm not sure what they can do next, but I'll be interested to hear it.
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