I do a lot of moaning about simplicity in music. So much moaning, in fact, that you’d be forgiven for thinking that all I listen to is Dream Theater and Tales from Topographic Oceans.
Not true, of course. I do think a lot of popular music is pretty shopworn, recycling the same chords and progressions and even lyrics. I have the same complaints about country, blues, folk – hell, any style in which you can string one-five and one-four-five progressions in a line and call it good. (I seriously do a lot of moaning about this.)
But I do see the pure, visceral power of a simple yet effective song, and it often works on me. Delivery counts for a lot. Jason Isbell’s wonderful Southeastern made my top 10 list last year, despite sticking almost entirely to well-traveled musical roads, because his lyrics are amazing and his delivery impassioned. Southeastern felt like a master telling me 12 gripping stories, and more complex music would have detracted from its impact. Sometimes, simplicity really works.
Here’s another case in point: Tom Petty, to my knowledge, has never written a truly complicated song. But he’s written a bunch of good ones, and he has the brilliance to give those songs to the Heartbreakers, one of the best bands in America. I would stack the Heartbreakers up against anyone, actually. Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Scott Thurston, Ron Blair and Steve Ferrone. You aren’t going to get a lot better than that. Even if Petty’s songs were boring as hell, the Heartbreakers would still knock them out of the park.
Thankfully, Petty’s songs are always pretty good, if not great. Four years ago, he dropped one of his infrequent disappointments, the blues-based Mojo. But fans will be happy to know that with the release of Hypnotic Eye, the 13th Heartbreakers record, Petty’s back on track. This is a fine set, one that starts with the gritty tone of Mojo and builds on it with some uncluttered songcraft. While some of this record isn’t quite up to the standard of its best songs, it’s all enjoyable, a late-career surge from a guy who really needed one.
The attitude is on display from the first moments of “American Dream Plan B,” with its tough, spare riff and its never-give-up message. “Fault Lines” is faster and darker, Ferrone’s ride cymbals driving a jazz-inflected song about life cracking under you. Those are just the opening salvo, and they lead into “Red River.” Everything you’ve heard about this song is true, particularly the praise for its soaring, memorable chorus. This is the most Tom Petty-esque Tom Petty song in years, and one I keep coming back to.
The rest of Hypnotic Eye has some difficulty keeping up with the opening trilogy, but there’s nothing that slips below par here. Highlights include the stomping “All You Can Carry,” another of Petty’s best songs in years, featuring some splendid work from Campbell, and “Forgotten Man,” which makes full use of its almost-cliched riff. “Power Drunk” and “Burnt Out Town” are where all the blues impulses this time seem to have ended up, and they’re good, if not particularly remarkable. The slower tunes this time are the weaker link – “Sins of My Youth” is merely passable, and “Full Grown Boy” floats by without leaving much of a mark.
But the record ends well. The seven-minute “Shadow People” is a slinky epic, one that hearkens back to the 1980s era of this band. Tom Petty is all of 63 now, but on this song – and several others on Hypnotic Eye – he sounds half that age. This record delivers the goods. Nothing here breaks new ground for the Heartbreakers, but just to hear them plugging away, nearly 40 years into their career, on a set of songs this effective, is simply swell.
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I like the Petty album, but if you want to hear a perfect example of how to make a compelling, tremendous record out of a set of simple songs, you need to hear The Voyager, the third solo album from Jenny Lewis.
Lewis is still best known as the lead singer of Rilo Kiley, a band that I always liked, but never quite loved. I enjoyed their poppy diversion of a final record, Under the Blacklight, best of anything they made. But Lewis’ solo career has been another animal altogether. It’s been unpredictable – an album of old-world-folksy songs with the Watson Twins? A duets record with Jonathan Rice? – and, given the diversity, surprisingly solid. Still, Lewis hadn’t made an album I truly, deeply love either, until this one.
The Voyager is the culmination point of everything Jenny Lewis has done well throughout her career. These 10 songs are sharp and incisive, with easy melodies augmented by strong production. This record was co-produced by Ryan Adams, which gives you an idea of how much of it sounds – ringing guitars, big drums, sweet harmonies, an earthy feel buoyed by touches like strings and keyboards and chimes. I’d go so far as to say that if Adams’ new record is as good as The Voyager, I’ll be a happy camper.
“Head Underwater” gets things off to a confident start, with its Fleetwood Mac vibe and gorgeous vocal harmonies. Here is everything I love about this album in 4:08 – a sweet melody, some lovely clean guitar flourishes, Lewis’ clear and beautiful voice, and a great lyric. “She’s Not Me” ramps up every one of these qualities, delivering a sad yet hummable tune that upends the title phrase – this song’s about realizing that someone you love has ended up with someone better. When she gets specific in the bridge, it’s just heartbreaking.
“Just One of the Guys” is about being a woman in music, of course, but Lewis brings her own experience to a sharp and funny lyric. “No matter how hard I try to be just one of the guys, there’s a little something inside that won’t let me…” “Late Bloomer” is a classic story-song about lost innocence, while “The New You” opens with a casual 9/11 reference. Throughout this record, Lewis is generous with her gift for observation. Everything here sounds drawn from a deep and personal well, and her words lend this album an emotional heft, allowing the music to remain breezy and fun.
Really, there’s nothing on here I would do differently. I love it all, from the dark surf rock of “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em” to the Kinks-esque pop of “Love U Forever” to the delicate, string-laden title track. The Voyager is the strongest album Jenny Lewis has made, the summit she’s been climbing toward since Rilo Kiley’s first efforts, and it’s an absolute joy to hear her find her voice so completely.
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You may not want to take my opinion too seriously, though, since I’ve also been rather enjoying the new Jason Mraz album.
Yeah, I know. Believe me, I know. But hear me out. Yes, more often than not, Mraz is pretty awful, a fact that has been endlessly disappointing to me, because he has a strong voice and a decent amount of talent. I marginally enjoyed Mraz’ first record, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, and decided to keep an eye on him. But then he delivered one painfully unfunny clever-clever jaunty song after another, upping the douchebag quotient to near-intolerable levels. I kept listening, but not seriously. The only song I liked on 2012’s Love is a Four Letter Word (yeah…) was “93 Million Miles.” The rest ranged from tolerable to awful.
Which is why his fifth record, Yes!, is such a pleasant surprise. Gone are the soul affectations, gone are the overly clever quick-rhymes, gone is the douchiness. In their place, Mraz has written a bunch of sweetly earnest acoustic pop songs, and performed them with a seriousness of intent that elevates this effort over anything else he’s done. He is ably supported by Raining Jane on this album, who offer up the most gorgeous vocal harmonies he’s ever enjoyed. All of that adds up to a collection that is, at worst, pleasant as a summer wind, and at best, surprisingly moving.
Mraz goes a long, long time without putting a foot wrong here. The opening five songs are exactly what they should be, the strummy joy of “Love Someone” leading into the infectious “Hello, You Beautiful Thing” and then into the pretty “Long Drive,” on which Raining Jane makes their presence felt. The streak culminates with “Everywhere,” one of the few songs on Yes! that flirts with rock. The lyrics are ill-advised (“If I wasn’t a party, how could you be the life of me?” Yes, that’s a real line…), but the tune is insidious. It’s a winner in spite of itself.
“Best Friend” is the first stumble, just because the lyrics are so cheesy, but Mraz quickly rights the ship with “Quiet,” one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from him. It’s a gentle reminder to enjoy every moment with the people you love, and it’s prettier than it has any right to be. It complements “Out of My Hands” well – the message of both songs is to let go and appreciate the wonders in front of you. “You Can Rely On Me” is simple and sweet, while “A World With You” will soon become the official first dance song at weddings everywhere. Album closer “Shine” is surprisingly psychedelic, bringing things to a simmering boil before they crash to a halt.
Yeah, there are other missteps. I am still not sure what to think of the cover of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” popularized by Boyz II Men. “3 Things” could have used a rewrite. But if Mraz occasionally steps over the line into cheese, it still feels honest here, so I can forgive it with a minor wince. Yes! is such an uplifting piece of work, so in love with life, that it’s hard to come down too hard on it. I’ve not been able to stop listening to it since picking it up, so sweet is the vibe it conjures up. I don’t know if this means my critical faculties have stopped working, or Mraz has really made an impressive artistic leap here. I’m hoping for the latter, but either way, I’m enjoying this. It’s simple, and simply beautiful.
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Next week, a dissertation on Beck’s Song Reader. Yeah, I bet you’re looking forward to that. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.