Saturday, August 9, 2014

Album Reviews - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Psycho Sisters

Over the course of a near-40-year career, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have taken a few left turns, the most recent being 2010’s Mojo. A rollicking, bluesy set that served as the perfect vehicle for Mike Campbell to expand his underrated lead guitar work, Mojo was not typical Tom Petty fare. And when TPATH toured that summer, the Mojo tracks went over like an S.B.D. fart at a wedding reception.

Nothing on Mojo really fits the canon of hits and singalong anthems that Petty fans know so well. Likewise, part of the tepid response to Mojo had to be lack of familiarity. So when TPATH played four or five Mojo songs in succession in the middle of a set filled with crowd favorites during the 2010 tour, the Mojo tracks came across like a moment of silence, an awkward pregnant pause before the rousing finish.

Petty’s new album, Hypnotic Eye, shouldn’t suffer such a fate on this summer’s tour. With each ticket bought online, the purchaser received a free download of Hypnotic Eye, leaving no excuse not to know the new material when the band comes to your town.

Beyond that, free download or not, there is no reason for any Tom Petty fan not to love Hypnotic Eye. From the opening fuzz tones of “American Dream Plan B” to the weary and wary set-closing “Shadow People,” Hypnotic Eye rocks and rips and kicks ass from start to finish. At the same time, the record’s mostly brooding undertones are apparent even in some of the song titles — “Fault Lines,” “Power Drunk,” “Forgotten Man,” “Sins Of My Youth,” “Burnt Out Town,” “Shadow People” — and reverberate throughout the album’s lyrics. Song after song, Petty seems to be wondering how the world went so crazy so quickly. Maybe Petty is becoming a more topical songwriter in his sixties. If this is the result, let’s hope for more of the same next time around.

The playing on Hypnotic Eye is pure Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The sound is tight and lean, the tunes laden with sharp but subtle hooks, and the lyrics carry a wallop. The musicianship is impeccable, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. There may be no “Free Fallin’” or “American Girl” on Hypnotic Eye, but the songs will creep into your consciousness nonetheless. The lasting effect is of a rock-and-roll band at the peak of its game, even after nearly 40 years making music on the beauty way, as Eliza Gilkyson so presciently called it.

The last few years have been a great time for rock and roll’s senior tour, by the way. Paul McCartney’s latest album, New, was utterly delightful, and Macca continues to tour constantly. His nearly three-hour shows should be required for all Beatles fans. The Rolling Stones recently finished their latest reunion world tour to universally rave reviews, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just wrapped up a world tour that blew the roof off arenas around the globe.

Now, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers come out with their best record in many years, maybe since the early 1980s, with a well-received U.S. tour already underway. Never forget, old guys rock!

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While Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are an iconic American rock band, the Psycho Sisters are strictly the stuff of cult followings. They deserve a much wider audience. Between them, Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson have produced individual and collective bodies of work that define them as significant artists. Cowsill first hit the American music scene as a pre-teenaged member of her family’s band, the Cowsills, in the 1960s. Peterson was a founding member of the Bangles in 1981.

Cowsill and Peterson joined the legendary New Orleans roots outfit the Continental Drifters in 1991, and began playing together as the Psycho Sisters as a side project shortly thereafter. They’ve worked with one another on and off ever since, but their busy schedules never allowed the time to record an album together. And they have been busy. They’ve both appeared as back-up singers on numerous projects by other artists, and Cowsill launched a solo recording career in 2005 with an obscure masterpiece, Just Believe It. With contributions from Peterson, Adam Duritz and Lucinda Williams among others, Just Believe It is an astonishing record and can and should be downloaded from Cowsill’s website. It’s well worth the cost. In addition, Cowsill and her remaining siblings have reformed the Cowsills and play regularly.

More than two decades after first appearing as the Psycho Sisters, Cowsill and Peterson have finally recorded an album, Up On The Chair, Beatrice, and it was more than worth the wait. Consisting mostly of songs they’ve performed together since the ’90s, songs about love found and love lost and the travails entailed therein, Up On The Chair, Beatrice features strong songwriting, catchy melodies, rootsy arrangements, great lead vocals, and super-tight harmonies. We can only hope that the second album won’t be nearly as long in the making.

The only complaint one can make about Up On The Chair, Beatrice is that it lasts just 33 minutes and 27 seconds from start to finish. Even with the resurgence of vinyl as a listening medium, 33 minutes is not long enough. Not. Even. Close. If they had the time to record the 10 jewels included here, surely they could have stretched the sessions another few days. Based on the seven songs they wrote or cowrote for this record, there’s no question the two of them have the songwriting chops to come up with two or three more great songs. Aside from that, Up On The Chair, Beatrice is simply excellent, highly recommended.