Album Review: Mudcrutch — 2

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Mudcrutch were Tom Petty’s band prior to him forming the Heartbreakers and his subsequent rise to fame. Saddled with one of the worst names in rock n’ roll history (there must be worse — though I’m struggling to think of a contender beyond Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts) the group seemed like a strange choice of side project for Petty when he brought them back together for a self-titled album in 2008.

The fact is that the original Mudcrutch never achieved much success, and in actuality the original incarnation never put a record out. Petty took key players Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (piano) with him on to bigger and brighter things, and the group was merely a footnote to Petty history for many years, until they were eventually anthologised with a few tracks on the massive Playback boxset in the mid 90's.

Both Campbell and Tench have been faithful lieutenants to Petty ever since, so the purpose of bringing Mudcrutch back to life seemed foggy at first. However, the group’s debut was very different from a Heartbreakers record. With Petty moving to bass, and drummer Randall Marsh and guitarist Tom Leadon joining the mix, the band produced and wild and woolly sounding record — at times bringing to mind Notorious Byrd Brothers-era The Byrds. It was a time capsule back to late 60’s Californian rock, complete with winding jams and dueling instrumentation, and it worked nicely.

That first Mudcrutch record ended up signalling something of a creative renaissance for Petty. He quickly re-grouped the Heartbreakers to deliver a blues record (MOJO) and an excellent garage record (Hypnotic Eye) — both of which were enjoyable on a purely sonic level, as well as containing some sharp songwriting from Petty.

Now 8 years after their debut, Mudcrutch returns with the very simply titled 2. The album is a slightly different beast from its predecessor. Where as Mudcrutch was lanky and loose, 2 is more compact, and lands a bit closer to a Heartbreakers record in sound and style. The lovely Trailer, which opens the record, sets the tone — and the fact that the song originates from the Southern Accents era indicates some of looseness and casualness of the record.

This is a true band effort — much more than perhaps any other Petty-related project. There is an open and collaborative feel here that doesn’t always feature within Petty’s songwriter-driven roots rock. Each member of the band contributes a song (the highlights of which being Tench’s slyly written and wryly delivered Welcome to Hell, and Marsh’s rollicking Beautiful World) and a spirit of camaraderie flows throughout.

In the hands of many bands this all would play as simple roots rock, but — as is often also the case with Heartbreakers records — the band interplay pushes this to something more. Tench and Campbell are excellent as always, and they work well in this setting to shade and colour the space in these songs, with able support from Leadon and Marsh, who clearly enjoy this second bite at the cherry.

And ultimately the strength of 2 should really come as no surprise. Be it solo (where he calls on Tench and Campbell regularly anyway), with the Heartbreakers, or now with Mudcrutch — Petty is perhaps the only rocker of the past 40 years who has never released a dud album, and so the pleasure here is hearing him do it again, a little bit older and wiser, with a band which is still a joy to hear in action.

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Music and pop culture writer from Auckland New Zealand

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