Thursday, January 26, 2012

Not just a sad "Echo" after all

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a pretty good decade in the 1990s. In 1991, the group released "Into the Great Wide Open." If you've never heard the album, it's like "Full Moon Fever, Vol. 2." Just about every song on the album sounds like it could have / should have been a radio hit (and a couple of them surely were).

Then you had the first "Greatest Hits," which featured "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Anyone who was conscious in the mid 1990s knows this song (and probably loves it). And for the Kim Basinger haters, well, the video featured her as a corpse. Win-win, right?

Then came Tom Petty's second "solo" album "Wildflowers" (the first being "Full Moon Fever," and the "solo" distinction reflecting that ... one again ... many of the Heartbreakers were actually involved). "Wildflowers" is my favorite of all the Petty-related albums released through 2011, so I don't need to speak further on my opinions of its qualities.

And THEN you have the great soundtrack to the movie "She's the One." I'm not a big fan of the film itself, but the album is an enormous success. Everything about the variety of the music screams to the immense strengths of the band. And it had one of their last great frilly psychedelic hits: "Walls (Circus)."

And finally ... you hit "Echo." Released in 1999, it's something of a curiosity.

If you've ever seen the video biographical film "Running Down a Dream," you'll note that Tom Petty and the band don't have much to say that's positive about "Echo."

In fact, in a line one of my friends likes to quote, the general impression given is: "'Echo' is ..."

The band really doesn't relate to it.

Here's the deal.

Tom Petty was going through a pretty harsh divorce. This inspired in him feelings that were, to put it mildly, unpleasant. It's not like Petty and the band hadn't gone through tumult and legal battles before (as anyone aware of their history can readily testify). But nothing had hit Petty this personally, this privately.

Petty could have recorded his anger, his spite, his frustration ... He could have put details into the songs, he could have really vented and made a powerful "divorce" album. But he didn't (well, a couple of the songs definitely have connotations about them, but nothing TOO potent). As the "Running Down a Dream" video puts it (and I paraphrase here): Petty could have released an album that attacked things head on, and it probably would have been a better album ... but he would have been a worse human being for doing it.

Petty's divorce wasn't the only problem the band was confronting. Bass player and vocalist Howie Epstein (who had provided so many of the clear, beautiful high parts and harmonies) was struggling with heroin addiction ... and losing. His problems with drugs was impeding his health, his physical strength and his ability to meet obligations. He's not featured on the "Echo" album cover, even, as he missed the photo shoot because of either being sick from heroin withdrawal OR from oversleeping because of heroin use (I've heard it both ways).

In any event, "Echo" would be the last album to feature Epstein. He died from a heroin overdose in 2003. Truly sad.

As you can see, "Echo" had a lot of issues cluttering its making. It wasn't a pleasant time for anyone in the band, and I'm sure that contributes to their personal lack of appreciation for the effort.

Their issues and lack of appreciation had, and continue to have, little effect on me.

When the album was released in 1999, I was in my final months (weeks?) of high school. A lot of Tom Petty music was pretty vital to my appreciation of modern (that is to say, not Sixties) rock in general. His stuff from the Seventies and Eighties was definitely great, but I'd respected how vital and popular he remained in the Nineties. It takes real talent, real attitude, real determination to span decades and remain so damn cool.

I bought two copies of the album the week it came out. One was for one of my best friends, the other was for me. I'm not sure if my friend still has the CD, if he ever listened to it much, etc. But for me, it was part of my soundtrack to the Summer of 1999. And it still sounds good to me today.

The album has anger, but it also has humor and drive. "Swingin'" has as much perseverance as the people named in roll call fashion throughout the song. "Free Girl Now" could just as easily be a Joe Walsh song. "Billy the Kid" recalls the "ready to fight" Petty of the early Eighties. And Mike Campbell even gets a lead vocal (on "I Don't Wanna Fight")! When all is said and done, the album has a bit of something for everyone. It's an album that deserves more than a brief note and dismissal from its creator(s).

I am going to "live blog" this album tonight. I haven't sat down to really listen to this album, track by track, in a couple of years. I'll be curious to see if my positive feelings are still as strong, and if I have any new impressions on the material.

If you've heard the album before, or if you get the urge to buy it or listen to it after exposure from this blog, I'd love to get your input!


  1. The album kicks off with one of its very best songs, "Room at the Top."

    I love the mood established in the very beginning, with the swimmy instrumental notes.

    Then Tom's voice comes in, very plaintive and confessional.

    Then it all builds up to a strumming, chugging rock song.

    There's so much mood to this song. And Petty's vocals throughout carry so much emotion. He sounds sad and hopeful at the same time.

    Campbell's guitar solo goes all over the place, like they don't know what to do with it ... which is PERFECT for a song with so much emotional conflict.

    God, what a brilliant song.

    The album switches back to the confessional, "Tom to you" kind of approach.

    It's no "Free Fallin'," it's no anthem ... but it's a damn fine piece of work and stands as one of my very favorite songs.

  2. Next we get a nice little return to the "Refugee" kind of style of song. "Counting On You" has very personal lyrics, certainly, but the band's instrumental bed and the performances throughout really give a smokey bar feel to it.

    It's kind of a flip of the coin to the earlier hit "Listen to Her Heart," with Petty being the loser in the situation.

    "Well I saw your reflection in the river / and I swear I heard you in the wind / oh oh oh, little girl / don't misunderstand me" ... great lyrics.

  3. The third track is "Free Girl Now," a good li'l rocker.

    Petty has a shouting vocal throughout, and the song sounds more celebratory than the lyrical content actually suggests.

    This is one of the tracks that really hints at Petty's divorce. It's kind of a litany of abuse that a woman went through, and how she's a free girl now ... no longer the victim (or recipient?) of her (seemingly negative) circumstances.

    Benmont Tench's organ adds some interesting touches about halfway through the track, almost like comic relief.

    It's almost an empowering song, and a different delivery would make it totally about climbing out of abusive relationships. But Petty's inflection is more about mockery ... like "You say it's this bad, but c'mon ... you are exaggerating."

    Thus, "Free Girl Now" seems very sarcastic. And it's delicious.

  4. Track four is "Lonesome Sundown," the first pure ballad of the album. It's almost country, especially with the slide guitar work throughout.

    Petty's sadness is palpable, and many have suggested that the song is allegory for his divorce (and the song is far more sympathetic to how rough the situation is for both people involved).

    "This is gonna be hard" is sung with so much empathy ...

    "And I stand accused / outside the law / but you / are all I need" ... Petty sounds like Dylan here. His voice really emulates Bob.

    Love the drum work throughout the song, and Mike Campbell's solo is (as usual for Campbell) perfect. Campbell has such a knack for finding the right notes and tone to suit the material. Talk about your underrated guitarists.

  5. "Swingin'" is up next, and it's another classic Petty performance. And Howie Epstein is pretty evident here on the vocal harmonies. "And she went down ... swingin'." When you hear the sustained harmony vocals in the background? That's Howie.

    I love this song. The guitar intro, the harmonica, everything.

    The song has a female lead character, and it recalls "Mary Jane's Last Dance" in a way ... even the harmonica bits in the background emulate "Mary Jane" a bit.

    The guitar sounds so powerful on this track, even on just simple riffs. It's so fuzzy and complimentary.

    And the solo is so ... swirly.

    Let's see ... who gets a mention in the song as other people who went down swinging?

    Benny Goodman.
    Glenn Miller.
    Tommy Dorsey.
    Sammy Davis.
    Sonny Liston.

  6. Next up is "Accused of Love." It's slightly countryish, slightly rockabilly.

    "You speak to me / in natural harmony / like we both grew up with nothin" is such an awesome lyric to start the song.

    I love the acoustic guitars on this track.

    The violin on the song is such a pure tone. I'd be curious to see how the Dixie Chicks would handle this tune.

    "And I don't even know the wrong I've done / and I don't even care anymore / all I know is that I believe / that you and me / forever, will stand accused of love" ... such a great love song lyric.

    The picked solo with its bent notes really suit the song (big surprise ... Campbell rules).

    Petty turns in some nice vocals here, too.

    Not a hit song, but plenty good.

  7. Next up is the understated title song, "Echo."

    This song is such a pep talk of a tune. It's sad, but builds up to being advice you can lean on.

    It has such a universal feeling to it. You don't HAVE to project Petty's divorce onto it.

    It's a tale of relationships that fall apart, without the inherent anger. There's a resignation to it, and an understanding. And it sure isn't blameless, though it certainly doesn't accept fault either.

    "I'm gonna keep my head, I'm gonna keep my cool / I'm so in love with you / and in another world, nothing was like this / there might have been a girl, but there never was a kiss" ... weird.

    "The poison came in liquid / she was naked all the time / and no one could explain it / it was all between the lines / and I don't seem to trust anyone no more / it could be faith, I'm just not sure."

    Such a stark lyric. Can the conflict and confusion of failed love be handled any more adroitly?

    "You let me down / you dropped the ball / you dropped on your face, most of all." The anger surfaces.

    The song addresses so many levels. Anger (at self and at the other person), doubt, sadness, acceptance.

    Such a great song.

  8. "Won't Last Long" is track 8.

    For some reason, it always seemed such a jarring song to me. It has a strident pace that seems inappropriate following "Echo." But that doesn't mean the song is bad.

    "I'm down, but it won't last long" demonstrates the resilience and acceptance of a bad situation.

    This is one of the few songs on the album that just doesn't click with me. It seems like the kind of song that Petty and the group could toss off in 5 minutes, no effort.

    I do like the ethereal organ work and the guitar chime strum, it makes it sound like a different song. But then comes the abrupt transition back into the rocker.

    An interesting song. Not bad. Not "filler." Just not a favorite.

  9. "Billy the Kid" rises to the occasion and is a song that always pleases.

    The intro is a weird jumble of sounds, then the instruments come in and lay down a cool groove. It starts off like a nice jam, then kicks into a nifty rock tune.

    The protagonist of the song is the butt of bad jokes and unfriendly situations, but his pride and self respect keep him going throughout.

    "Yeah, I went down hard / just like Billy the Kid / yeah, I went down hard / yeah, but I got up again."

    The ultimate betrayal throughout suggests an innocence or reluctance to accept the faults of the friend/lover addressed throughout.

    In the end, the result of the song is "you can call me names, joke about me, betray me, but I'll survive ... you can't keep me down."


  10. Mike Campbell gets the lead vocal on "I Don't Wanna Fight."

    It's not a great song, but it isn't a bad song either. It's a fun track.

    It's lyrically simplistic, with tasty riffing and a catchy chorus.

    "I've got a hole in my head / I've got a hole in my head / I'd be better off dead / I've got a hole in my head" is how it starts.

    He insists he doesn't want to fight. Why? "I'm a lover, lover, lover." Well ... fair enough.

    It's simple, but it hits the right spots. Mike sounds a bit like Tom on vocals.

    The guitar solo is meaty, too.

  11. Next up is a lesser track, "This One's For Me."

    This is another clear divorce talk.

    "I threw all I had into the sea / now I want a little back, this one's for me."

    The instrumental backing is the best part of the song to me. Lots of guitar bits dropping in and out, and a good "bump thwack" with the drums.

    The vagueness of this song tends to work against it ... sometimes the lyrical simplicity hints at the effort Petty went into to avoid directly criticizing his ex. But since the song is so much about what he lost and what was taken from him, the obtuse nature is just frustrating. It makes the song emptier.

    It's almost there.

    "You don't even know what you got / til it's walking away" says it all ... even for the song.

  12. Next up is "No More."

    I love the structure of the song, and the lyrical pace suits the music laid down in the intro.

    Piano and guitar strums work together to create a reflective mood, and flourishes pop up throughout (tambourine among them) just to add special touches.

    There's orchestral backing that add an emotional depth.

    "When I see that sun go down / my mind begins to clear / sure, was a hard time / sure was a hard time, my dear" ... love that lyric. It's got a unity to it.

    Love the whole tone of this song. Very slow, very quiet, but with resolve.

  13. "About to Give Out" is up next and has a charging instrumental beginning.

    Tom has a spirited vocal, and the pace is quicker than most of the album.

    "I'm Davey Crockett in a coonskin town" is just a fun lyric. :)

    Lots of characters in this song. It's a story song that goes nowhere, just a lot of fun. It's a pub pleaser.

    Dig Benmont Tench's piano work throughout. A good head bopper.

  14. "Rhino Skin" is the second-to-last song on the album, and it has never been one of my particular favorites.

    It's got kind of a dark guitar intro, a definite throb.

    I totally forgot the "you need elephant balls if you don't want to crawl" lyric. Hrm. Not sure what that means ... ;)

    "Oh my love if I reveal / every secret I've concealed / how many thoughts would you steal / how much of my pain would you feel" is a bitter lyric, a pretty good one too.

    I just feel there isn't much to this song. It's clearly a song about the divorce situation, and how you have to develop a tough skin and a hard outlook to get through pain and anger and perceived betrayal.

    I know plenty of people dig this song. I don't hate it. It just doesn't click with me. I feel like it's twice as long as it needs to be to say what it says.

    The instrumental break is OK. Has good soloing and spirit to it. Better than I remembered.

  15. The final track always reminds me of late night driving.

    "One More Day, One More Night" is the name of the song.

    It's very unsteady. Tom sounds tired and like he's clinging to some kind of light at the end of a tunnel, while still chin-deep in his anguish.

    The song has a lot of power, and the instruments build upon each other. It starts off quiet, and the drums and piano and guitars start to get more prominent and add to the anxiety.

    It's a song that really demonstrates the NEED to believe in better things coming, without forcing some fake enthusiasm for it.

    "Someone better hurry, I'm all alone / and I keep breakin' down." Wow, really, haven't we all felt this way? Man ... talk about universal lyrics.

    "Hold on / one more night / hold on / one more day" with the songs going silent between the lines really emphasizes the lyrics and the desperate feel.

    This song has such NEED to it, and such a lonely feel. It must have been painful, and Tom's voice carries that emotion.

    The guitar jumps in and Campbell scrambles about the fret board to work tons of notes in. It's just so SCARED, so nakedly vulnerable.

    A fantastic song to end the album.

  16. So, that's the album.

    It's 15-songs strong, and most of them pretty dang good.

    I still get a rush from the best of them, and I can appreciate the fear and the anger and the need throughout the album. And I can applaud his stubborn courage and resilience throughout.

    What a way to end the Nineties ...

    And what a great way to relive them, listening tonight.

    I hope you folks get the chance to listen to the album someday, if you haven't already heard it. It's a good 'un.


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