The California Tech — May 3, 1985

Buckaroo Reviews: A Highly Irregular Column
By Matt Rowe
The California Tech — Friday, May 3, 1985

Southern Accents | Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers | MCA/Backstreet Records
Southern Accents sounds like a compilation of tracks from two different albums. Four songs — including the hit single “Don’t Come Around Here No More” — are heavy on synthesizer and R&B touches; three of them are co-written and co-produced by Petty and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics (whose new album, Be Yourself Tonight, will be raved about soon in this space). Southern Accents’ other five songs are classic Heartbreakers: from the opener, “Rebel,” to the closer “The Best of Everything,” the band is at the top of its form — with a little dash of drawl to go with the supposedly unifying concept behind (hidden behind?) the title.

Unfortunately, these two very different styles of music are not relegated to one side each; they are disconcertingly interwoven in an attempt to unify the album. This has given many critics cause to call the album “uneven” or “a failed concept album.” For it it is, as a whole, uneven — but the two half-albums that make up Southern Accents are, seperately, consistent in their brilliance.

The collaborations with Dave Stewart (along with the song “Mary’s New Car,” similarly arranged and produced) seem destined to be the more popular cuts on the album. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (already high in the charts) is unfailingly original — from Stewart’s sitar introduction, the chorus shouts of “Hey!”, and Petty’s sly, weatherbeaten vocals to the sheer pop genius of the song’s final acceleration and fadeout. (The video is equally original — and very funny.) “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” busts open Side Two with a funky rhythm guitar, an upbeat, danceable melody, horns, horns, and more horns, and the most likeable whine of a vocal this side of Memphis. “It Ain’t Nothin’ to Me” recalls many tracks from Sweet Dreams and Touch, while “Mary’s New Car” is more of an experiment — a potential rocker subtly arranged around a sax, synth drums and a vibraphone.

The cover of Southern Accents is Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “The Veteran in a New Field.” These four songs help explain that — but they don’t do it justice. As they are presented here, they are more of an intrustion. Granted, it is usually a welcome intrusion (especially with “Don’t Come Around Here,”) but it distracts from the real meat of the album — the half-finished exploration suggested by the title.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers come from Gainesville, Florida, and while their hit singles are most often heard coming from a radio, the other five songs on Southern Accents won’t let us forget the band’s real roots. “Rebels” introduces us to some of the basics of Petty’s vision of the South: “I was born a rebel, down in Dixie/On a Sunday mornin’/Yeah with one foot in the grace/And one foot on the pedal, I was born a rebel.” It is a powerful and memorable song, both in idea and execution — destined to join the ranks of Petty’s many classic anthems.
The album’s closing track, “The Best of Everything,” also sounds the way its lyrics read. It is a straight love song, played with all the feeling (and all the horns) the band could find. “Dogs on the Run” is the most reminiscent of “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That,” Petty’s most popular singles. “Spike” is a laid-back anti-redneck dare, subtly but insistently propelled by Benmont Tench’s keyboards and Mike Campbell’s slide guitar:

Oh we got another one, just like the other ones
Another bad ass, another trouble-maker
I’m scared, ain’t you boys scared?
I wonder if he’s gonna show us what bad is?
Boys, we gotta man with a dog collar on
You think we oughta’ throw ol’ Spike a bone?

“Southern Accents” is the thematic counterpart to “Rebels,” and properly it should finish Side Two, not Side One. Piano, percussion and strings back vocals lovingly, praising the traditions Petty so insistently defends in the earlier track.

If you were to rerrange the songs on Southern Accents, you would have the better half of perhaps Petty’s best album paired with an uneven experiment with synthesizers. As the songs are organized, the whole product is uneven. (The production hardly is. Petty, with the assistance of longtime collaborator Jimmy Iovine (Lone Justice) and the conspicious male Eurythmic, gives the album a clear, bright and simutaneously hard sound that is both professional and personal.) So what is my conclusion?

Well, if you don’t buy the album, all you’ll hear is “Don’t Come Around Here No More” — one of Southern Accents’ best, granted, but you’ll be missing a lot, too. And if you do buy it, chances are you’ll be disappointed with the whole. There are many great songs here, but Southern Accents is not really a classic album. I personally like it a lot — but then my tastes are eclectic, to say the least. So is Southern Accents.

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