Tom Tom Club: Petty's new album and a tribute go free-fallin'

By David Browne
November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

People always take hip-hop to task for sampling, but why hasn’t anyone gotten on Tom Petty’s case? Probably because rappers do it electronically, while Petty is essentially a human sampler. He and the Heartbreakers have come up with some good singles (”I Need to Know,” ”Free Fallin”’) and kept alive the traditional rock-band ensemble when everyone considered it dead, yet Petty hasn’t had an original guitar lick in his head his whole career. His greatest contribution may ultimately be attitude: He was the first of the young old farts — under-30 men who sound older and stuffier than anyone should at their age. Lenny Kravitz, Eddie Vedder, and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows should all bow down before him.

Petty himself continues to respect the fenced-in parameters of rock’s hallowed ground on Wildflowers (Warner Bros.), his second solo album. His reference point this time appears to be the Beatles’ White Album. Eclectic and almost deliberately slight, Wildflowers wanders casually from white-boy blues to wispy moments that sound as if Petty were laconically strumming away in a field of daisies. With almost all the Heartbreakers in tow (exactly what makes this different from a group album — the royalties?), Petty downplays arena-rock moves and comes up with a few lyrical moments: ”Hard on Me” and ”Crawling Back to You” brood and sulk, with some subtle synthesizers to enhance the mood.

Still, this being Tom Petty, don’t expect much in the way of breakthroughs. His idea of progress is now copping riffs from Neil Young instead of from the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, or rewriting himself (”You Wreck Me” is Petty-by-numbers). Petty still whines about being the victim of some injustice, usually by a woman. Coproducer Rick Rubin keeps the instruments as clear and sparkling as seltzer, yet there’s only so much he can do with someone who seems to achieve bliss mostly when he sounds like Dylan’s kid brother.

Of course, Petty has become a classic-rock god himself, and what better proof than an actual Petty tribute album, You Got Lucky (Backyard/Scotti Brothers), featuring a dozen young, mostly obscure bands? Much of it is the standard covers-album junk — worth one listen and not much more — although some of the remakes (like Everclear’s take on ”American Girl”) groove much harder than the originals. The two best remakes bring out a seediness that Petty’s own polite rock only hints at: Silkworm’s version of ”Insider” becomes a dark, disjointed rumble, like the mumblings of a junkie, and Nectarine’s ”Even the Losers” is torn down to its raw musical skeleton. Some of these bands take more chances on the songs than Petty does himself. Wildflowers: B- You Got Lucky: C+