Tuesday, July 28 was payday for Benmont Tench. The long-serving keyboard player for Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers celebrated the release of two new albums that he features on – Tom Petty’s Hypnotic Eye and Jenny Lewis’ superb Voyager.
The similarities in the albums don’t stop with just the shared personnel. Both boast a panoramic California rock sound that is centred on its no-nonsense guitar work that cuts a wide swathe through the languid and enthralling tunes. And both are harnessed by bareknuckle production work which leaves each song nowhere to hide as their exposed, raw and heart-on-the-sleeve tales score direct hit after direct hit.
While Petty is old enough to be Lewis’ father, they both share a degree of rock immortality. Petty is a veritable Peter pan of rock’n’roll, while Lewis and her Voyager album has had her own Damn the Torpedoes moment, taking her scrappy rock into the big time for the first time.
That’s not to say all of Hypnotic Eye stacks up to the heights of Lewis’ Voyager. But 13 albums and more than 30 years later, we can afford Petty a wee bit of slack. Certainly, the opener ‘American Dream Plan B’ is as vigorous as he’s sounded in years, with a ball-busting riff leading the line as he spits: “Well, I’m half-lit/ I can’t dance for shit/ But I see what I want/ I go after it”. And considering the abundance of pain-soaked tales which grace Lewis’ Voyager that she would see eye-to-eye with Petty’s statement which arrives later in the same song: “But like a fool I’m bettin’ on happiness”.
Garage rock burner ‘Fault Lines’ is another high point. Balancing on the knife’s edge of duelling guitar riffs from Petty and Mike Campbell, it’s Petty’s turn to share his own frailties as he croons: “I got a few of my own fault lines/ Running under my life”, amid the furious attack of Steve Ferrone’s busy snare drum.
However impressive, he can’t keep up the Ramones-style pace forever. Ballads ‘Full Grown Man’ and ‘Sins of My Youth’ show Petty in an almost surreal twilight, assisted by the woozy mellotron work by Tench. Against the backdrop of an almost David Lynch-esque hotel lobby bossa nova groove, he offers up this analysis: “When the past gets up in your face/ Memories slide out of place/ All of those things that were hidden away/ Ain’t so bad in the light of day”.
All things considered, it’s a damn good Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album. And a return to form that thankfully buries the memory of the corny The Last DJ and the exhausted blues pastiche of Mojo to another era. Here is the sneering, lustful and hard-nosed Petty of the late 1970s, rejuvenated and still fronting his veteran band, rocking with conviction.