Initially included as part of the Super Deluxe Edition of last autumn’s Wildflowers & All the Rest, the single CD Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions) is now available as a standalone item and deservedly so. This ‘mirror image’ of Tom Petty’s second solo album is arguably superior to the version originally released in 1994.
And that’s even with the inclusion of the ostensibly slight and (in)famous “Girl on LSD.” TP’s dead-pan delivery, however, renders this track comic relief that highlights the otherwise sly good humor that permeates these sixteen tracks. Addition by subtraction occurs with the omission of “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the self-pitying non-sequitur in the late rocker’s canon. In its place (more or less) is the previously-unreleased “You Saw Me Comin’” which here serves as the fitting closer to the most personal statement Petty ever created. In fact, this cut carries such an intimate resonance it might well have replaced the likes of the forced macho of “Honey Bee.”
Like the comprehensive Playback box set of 1995, Finding Wildflowers consists of alternate takes, extended arrangements and, improvised renditions of familiar songs. Accordingly, such tracks as such as a twelve-string guitar dominated “You Wreck Me” provide dramatic insight into the meticulous approach Tom applied to this material in the company of kindred spirits including the entire band of Heartbreakers and producer Rick Rubin. Yet in place of a too-careful air permeating the LP in its original form, there’s a loose spontaneity within these recordings that make this collection sound like one prolonged burst of inspiration coming to fruition in real-time.
In that light, it’s worth pondering (again) how Petty and Rubin initially conceived Wildflowers as a double album, only to be counseled to the contrary by the record label (the double-CD set out last fall, All The Rest, is in fact that very compendium of material). In its ebb-and-flow of intensity, the logic behind this track sequencing is as readily apparent as that of any (every) carefully conceived and executed long-player. And along those very same lines, the inclusion of “Cabin Down Below” in both alternate and acoustic versions is indicative of Petty’s prolific output around this time (not to mention a direct reference to where he was living): even as the latter provides stylistic continuity with the comparably tender title song here, the swaggering rock of the former, like “Back to You,” stands wholly bereft of the self-consciousness that hampered so many of the prior choices for the ‘official record of over a quarter-century ago.
“A Higher Place” sounds similarly abandoned. as the authoritative drumming of session-man extraordinaire Kenny Aronoff buttresses Mike Campbell’s guitars and Benmont Tench’s piano (no surprise then Tom pronounces it ‘real good’ when the playing concludes). Track-by-track listings of all the players include multiple drummers besides the aforementioned percussionist: in addition to original Heartbreaker Stan Lynch, there’s Average White Band refugee Steve Ferrone (soon-to-be Lynch’s successor) as well as Ringo Starr: little wonder the creeping monotony that afflicts the original Wildflowers is nowhere to be found here.
The extended instrumental section of “House In The Woods” further elucidates the impromptu nature of the musicians’ contributions. But the insistent gait of the performance also functions as an ideal setup for the more deliberate pace and reflective tone of the succeeding cut; for “Hard On Me,” the author’s vulnerable, world-weary vocal phrasing accentuates the confessional nature of the lyrics. Likewise, the ambivalence within Tom’s performance of “It’s Good to Be King” renders it comparably true to life. Further contrast then arrives in the form of the liberating sensation emanating from the band’s gallop on “Driving Down to Georgia.”
The booklet enclosed in Finding Wildflowers bears a relatively plain graphic design in line with the digipak containing it. Yet those cosmetics belie the plethora of information inside, featuring all the necessary credits (and then some) for production, by long-time TP sound guru Ryan Ulyate, as well as the expert technical work of Jim Scott in recording and Chris Bellman in mastering. The pristine but unadorned sound they engineered not only reveals the nuanced influence of Dylan and latter-day Beatles (particularly George Harrison) in the songwriting and arranging but also unveils the detail of intricate musicianship as it appears on “Don’t Fade On Me.”
Given the surfeit of information provided on these eight pages, the omission of the lyrics is somewhat surprising. Yet as noted in the commentary regarding the latter composition, words were often in flux early on in the twenty-four months of recording. Given that length of time too, it’s hardly a surprise the end result of those effort(s) grew so close to Tom Petty’s heart that, in his later years, he often talked of devoting tours exclusively to this piece. Toward that end, the late rocker. like those family members who helped in the curating, might well approve of Finding Wildflowers and seriously consider whether it deserves to supplant its near thirty-year-old antecedent.