Southern Accents

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

MCA, 1985

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Nearing the end of their first decade as a recording band, one had to wonder what new ground Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers could plow. Their previous release, Long After Dark, featured two songs that made it into the top 30 in the pop singles charts, but to some people, the formula the band had been using was starting to sound tired -- much like the band.

Indeed, the tensions and desire for artistic control were so high that, during the mixing of their sixth album Southern Accents, Petty was so angered that he punched a wall, shattering his hand (this led to my best friend in childhood re-naming the band “Tom Petty And The Handbreakers”. We were such a classy group.)

On Southern Accents, Petty and crew do seem to try and mix things up more, becoming less of pop artists than modern-day storytellers in the vein of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Does it work? Well, part of the time, yes -- and when it doesn’t work, at least it’s listenable, if not fantastic.

This disc is most noted for the song “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” complete with its controversial video mimicking “Alice In Wonderland.” In all honesty, I wonder if this song would be as beloved had it not been for the video -- after all, the images in it last in my memory even twenty-three years after this disc was released.

Quite possibly, had it not been for MTV, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” would have been seen as a “what the hell were they my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 thinking?!?” moment for the Heartbreakers. This was, in essence, a track that merged Eastern rhythms (complete with electric sitar-sounding guitar work) with symphonic traces before dissolving into a full-out rocker at the coda. It’s very hard to separate the song from the video, and I, quite honestly, just can’t do it. All I know is that I still love this song, and I make no apologies for that.

Two other tracks were culled as singles from Southern Accents -- which, frankly, shocked me when I looked it up online at All-Music Guide,  since I don’t ever remember hearing either of them on the radio. The first, “Make It Better (Forget About Me),” is more along the lines of a traditional Petty song, with the Rickenbacker guitar work shining through and the jangly chorus. However, one would falter at labeling it among his best work; it’s okay, but forgettable. The other single “Rebels” does sound like it could have been a lot better had it been given a better balance in the mix, and had Petty not sounded like he was singing most of the song with marbles in his mouth. This one I’d label a “coulda, shoulda, woulda been” hit that, instead, languished at the bottom of the “Hot 100” on Billboard. Too bad.

This makes it sound like taking more of a musical chance on Southern Accents was a bad idea; in fact, it wasn’t. For all their weaknesses, neither “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” nor “Rebels” is a bad track at all, just victims of their own unique fates. The same could be said about numerous tracks on this one. The title track is an additional example of Petty mumbling through what could have been a… well, “breakthrough” isn’t quite the word, but it would have put Petty and the band into a new level of respectability, in terms of their songwriting. There’s a reason that Johnny Cash chose this song to cover on his Unchained disc; the storytelling is powerful. If only it was more clearly heard.

Similarly, “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” sounds like a cast-off of the traditional Heartbreakers style (especially in the chorus), while the bulk of the song is wrapped in a funk-like repetitive beat. Had this one had more lyrical development, it could have been a lot more impressive and interesting. And while “Mary’s New Car” is hardly my favorite on this disc, it, along with “The Best Of Everything,” showed that the Heartbreakers had hardly abandoned their traditional sound.

Southern Accents is one of those forgotten discs of Petty’s career, despite the popularity of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” It hardly qualifies as some of the band’s best work, but it is also not an absolute flop. If anything, it’s merely a product of a tired band, looking to regenerate themselves by expanding their sound. While they don’t wholly succeed, it’s worth giving this one a few listens to discover your own personal favorites hidden therein.

Rating: C+

User Rating: B



© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA, and is used for informational purposes only.