Music Review: Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ smell sweet
By James Sigman
The Ithacan — December 1, 1994
Heartbreakers’ latest release stays true to the songwriter’s winning formula
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Wildflowers | 8/10 | Produced by Rick Rubin
Most rock stars constantly reinvent themselves hoping to reach new audiences.
Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” album and his recent release “From the Cradle” are both examples of a musician trying to broaden his appeal. Yet Tom Petty has rarely strayed from his band of rock. Petty’s latest release, “Wildflowers,” tinkers with the formula slightly but stays true to Petty’s Heartbreaker roots.
The album is essentially a Heartbreakers album minus drummer Stan Lynch, who left the band. The rest of the Heartbreakers, Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein and Benmont Tench, provide their usual workmanlike performances. Tench shines throughout, especially on “To Find a Friend,” playing a solo on tack piano.
Many of the songs are marked by the consistently unexplainable Petty lyric. “Honey Bee” offers a good example: “Her juju beads are so nice/She kissed my third cousin twice/I’m the king of Pomona/And I’ve got something to say.” Some things are definitely best left unexplained.
On his last two studio albums, “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open,” Petty began to stray from the hard rock anthems that made him successful.
With “Wildflowers,” Petty finds an agreeable mix of hard rock and meaningful ballads.
The first single, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” has a sound similar to Petty’s last single, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” with a harder back beat.
Petty’s best ballad is “To Find a Friend,” with Ringo Starr doing a guest spot on drums for Lynch’s replacement, Steve Ferrone. Petty fails only when he gets too sentimental in “Only A Broken Heart” and the title track.
Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers are also at fault for playing too long on “House In The Woods,” a three-minute song that is nearly doubled in length due to endless jamming.
Petty atones for his sins with two rollicking songs, the aforementioned “Honey Bee” and “You Wreck Me.” The latter is the prototypical Petty song, complete with frenetic guitar from Petty and Campbell and a driving back beat from Ferrone.
Petty also draws from his musical influences on the album. “It’s Good To Be King” and “A Higher Place” demonstrate the Byrds’ influence on Petty.
Bob Dylan’s influence rears its curly head in “To Find a Friend” with an almost note-for-note copy of the opening to the chorus of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Generally, a Petty album isn’t complete without contributions from these influences.
While the influence of one Traveling Wilbury (Dylan) is found on the album, another’s presence is missing.
The producer of Petty’s last two albums, Jeff Lynne, is absent from “Wildflowers.”
The new, seamless production is the product of Rick Rubin, the producer responsible for Johnny Cash’s critically acclaimed comeback, “American Recordings.”
At times the production is too polished. After all, who would ever expect a Tom Petty song to be orchestrated and conducted by Michael Kamen?
For the last 20 years Tom Petty has produced solid, dependable music. Rest assured, “Wildflowers” continues the tradition while opening new avenues for Petty to travel on.