Mudcrutch is not a Tom Petty album. Nor is it merely a novelty. It is rather the rebirth of a band that met an untimely end when coincidence and circumstance brought together what would later became Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
By the time “Topanga Cowgirl” appears, the twelfth of fourteen cuts on this cd, you realize this is the diverse work of a fully-functional rock and roll band. “Shady Grove,” the opener, displays a loyalty to roots not evident or readily present on Heartbreakers official work, but it doesn’t evince any measure of self-consciousness on part of Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell or keyboardist Benmont Tench.
On the contrary, tracks like “Scare Easy” are testament to the chemistry of Mudcrutch as a quintet, not to mention the apparently seamless process by which three men who’ve played together over thirty years—the once and future Heartbreakers and their leader—have become truly integrated once again with guitarist vocalist Tom Leadon (brother of Bernie who was member of the Eagles and Flying Burrito Bros) and drummer Randall Marsh.
The slyness Petty himself displays is all too familiar to his fans but he sounds eminently more natural in his singing here and less self-conscious in his writing than on his last solo work Highway Companion. Perhaps it’s because he steps out of his usual roles: TP is one member, albeit a prominent one, in a band and, instead of guitar, he’s playing bass (locked in tightly with Marsh by the way).
Plucky guitar fills on “The Wrong Thing to Do” take the place of what might be a chiming twelve-string on a Heartbreakers tune. In fact the one cut here that directly recalls that band is “Bootleg Flyer,” seemingly a rewrite of “Restless’ from The Heartbreakers second album You’re Gonna Get It. More often, as on “Orphan of the Storm,” Mudcrutch reminds us they’re from the south: fellow Florida native Gram Parsons would feel at home on that number and in this band.
The country flavor seeps into this music throughout the album, not just obviously on “Six Days on the Road,” but also on originals like “Crystal River.” While the Dave Dudley composition recalls all too clearly the country affectations of seventies Rolling Stones, this cover of “Lover of the Bayou” serves as literal homage to Tom Petty’s other main influence The Byrds; it compares favorably to the later work of that seminal band.
The sprightly instrumental “June Apple” radiates the joy of playing together Mudcrutch no doubt experienced during this recording. It’s exactly that quality that makes this most unusual of Tom Petty projects work so well. You can practically imagine the whole band grinning at each other on the closer “House of Stone” and no doubt anyone hearing this will smile broadly too.