Mike Campbell’s The Dirty Knobs Keep It Rough & Tough On ‘Wreckless Abandon’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers were more than just a nameless backing band. Sure, the individual members might not have been household names, but the essence of the band, keyboardist Benmont Tench; bassist Ron Blair, who left the band in 1982, returning in 2003 after Howie Epstein died; and, of course, guitarist Mike Campbell; was known to fans both casual and serious. The Heartbreakers also backed Petty, who died in 2017, on his solo albums, further demonstrating how important the core was to Petty. Campbell, who had extensive collaborations and projects outside of Petty’s orbit, is inextricably linked to his former frontman, instrumentally and through songwriting. As a result, it has created an odd situation where it’s hard to know where Campbell ends and Petty began.

We can’t say that Wreckless Abandon by The Dirty Knobs, Campbell’s latest project, is his attempt to move past the Heartbreakers’ legacy, but it certainly represents his readiness to move on to the next phase of his career. Not that he needs additional musical credibility. Campbell’s own resume is strong: he’s a respected sideman and producer, even spending some time touring with Fleetwood Mac after they fired their guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham. 

And the Dirty Knobs aren’t new to Campbell, starting 12 years ago, when Campbell hit it off with guitarist Jason Sinay, playing out in smaller clubs between Heartbreaker tours. The project has a debut that, of course, has some similarities to Petty and the Heartbreakers. And looking at the statement, it’s an unfair one, because Campbell has equity in that sound. Petty’s name was on top of the albums but he consistently credited the band with being equal partners in the musical work. But it’s hard to listen to parts of Wreckless Abandon and not think of Petty.

Wreckless Abandon doesn’t sound like a Heartbreakers record but it, unsurprisingly, pulls from a lot of the same influences. It’s more garage than much of Petty’s work, although he and the Heartbreakers were certainly capable of rocking out. And Campbell’s voice lacks Petty’s sad twang, instead showing off a proto-punk, insolent vocal style, that often smirks at the listener in a Petty manner. 

Country singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Stapleton helps the western vibe on “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” a cross between country and garage rock that we’ll now call stable rock. The song is over-the-top in its leering winks to country, but the band sounds like it’s having a good time. “Aw Honey,” with its harmonica blasts and galloping rhythm, also sounds like a bunch of teen cowpokes discovering electric instruments behind a cactus and deciding to form a band.

The album’s strongest moments are actually the gentler ones. “Anna Lee” is a sweet acoustic ballad. While it’s the type of song Petty and Campbell did so well, here, with Campbell’s rougher voice and more upbeat vocal melodies, coupled with a vague country lilt, it sounds new. “Irish Girl” is a foundation of jangling acoustic guitar, but other than that, it’s a straight-forward, intimately produced track, almost like a live performance, rather than something layered in the studio. It’s pretty and low-key and also provides a strong sense of Campbell’s musical personality.

The baggage of previous projects is a challenge for any established artist. Campbell’s sound is his own, yet it’s also shared with Petty. He could have taken the Dirty Knobs in a completely different direction, and while he would have created a separation between his past and his future, it wouldn’t have been an honest demarcation. Instead, Campbell chose to embrace his personal sound, owning it, and refining it. It’s not an easy task but Campbell and the Dirty Knobs take it seriously.

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