Heartbreaker: Pickin’ on Tom Petty, the bluegrass tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is really an exceptional tribute that every TPATH fan should own. These recordings of classic TPATH songs do not simply reproduce them with a more countrified blue grass vocalist and a little countrified performance of the songs. Instead there is no vocalist, but instead the acoustic guitar is left to brilliantly “sing” the verses and choruses while the drums, pianos, organs, keyboards, and the lead and rhythm electric guitars are all substituted for with banjos, mandolins, fiddles, harmonicas, boyas (whatever the hell those are), and dobros (whatever the hell those are.) The result is that the songs are not simply inferior retread copies of the classic originals but reimaginations as extreme and as satisfying as Apocalyptica’s amazing translations of Metallica into cellos was.
Many of the songs are so drastically different given the change in instrumentation that they take a long time to recognize when you hear them and some simply aren’t recognizable without the title! In the moment that you hear a long familiar melody emerge it is such an illumination of the melody as to bring you to its beauty hearing it brought out through such variant instruments and speeds and arrangements. Free Fallin’, one of Tom’s most worn out songs ever, came across as such an inspiring melody but I couldn’t even recognize what song it was. When it finally clicked, I was just in awe of the link between the original and this variation. Don’t Do Me Like That is really recognizable in its introduction and then becomes less so, and so much more sophisticated sounding a song. I Need To Know also sounds like such a more sophisticated piece of work than the original and the urgent, pleading, desperate chorus, with its great echo of the back up singing, is recognizably translated, effectively preserving the best thing about the song.
You Got Lucky is incredibly good in a neat, eerie way. I Won’t Back Down still communicates a real sense of resolve. Refugee and American Girl are both pretty instantly recognizable and really beautiful. American Girl’s kind of jangly picking with its steadily increasing tempo is perfectly ready for the banjo’s interpretation. The lead acoustic guitar on Refugee is incredibly cool and completely maintains the original’s cool vibe under the flailng banjo.
The trick to recognizing most of the songs is to seize on the most maintained element—-the bass guitar—-and to try to hear what the acoustic guitar is singing.
The songs sound really natural on these instruments and they bring out the power of Tom’s melodies so faithfully while making them new in a way that showcases the multiple possibilities for expressing their beauty. These are not just re-recordings of songs, they are transformations.
The only disappointment any one could have with this disc is that its selection of songs only represents the first 13 years of Petty’s amazing 30 year career. Hopefully that’s just a door to a sequel but I doubt it. Likely it is more a function of the mainstream underappreciation for the later Petty—-which underappreciation shall be bemoaned many times in coming weeks and months here in hopes of being remedied among my readers.
This is kind of a clunky review, for which I apologize, but I just had to express how impressed I am by this disc. One final reminder, bluegrass is not the same thing as country music, especially (not contemporary country music!) These songs should appeal to lovers of acoustic guitar based music who generally dislike country music. So, unless you distinctly know you don’t like blue grass, don’t let an aversion to country music make you just automatically pass on this beautiful collection of songs.