"Damn the Torpedoes," the new album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker, is proof that mainstream rock 'n' roll doesn't have to be boring to be well done. The music, while not terrifically innovative, is varied, well-performed and mixed, and just plain enjoyable.
The first song on the album is likely to become a hit single. "Refugee" has received a lot of air play and deserves it. It's a haunting song in a minor key that takes a lot of rhythmic and instrumental material from Petty's last album, "You're Gonna Get It," and puts it together to present a smooth and somewhat sinister message of love without salvation: "Somewhere somehow somebody must have kicked you around some . . . Honey it don't really matter to me, Everybody's had to fight to be free. You know you don't have to live like a refugee."
Songs of rock 'n' roll teen-age alienation make up the basic theme of the album, but the beats are so boppy and pleasant that it's hard to take them seriously. Sentiments like, "I should have know right then it was too good to last/Life's such a drag when you live in the past," belonged to a song entitled "Even the Losers (Get Lucky Sometimes)." Tom Petty is not a pessimist.
Petty combines Dylanesque drawls and sneers with solid backup and creative arrangements. At times sounding tough and at other times sounding wistful like a Jackson Browne (Petty dislikes being compared to Browne's L.A. sound), Petty borrows riffs and harmonies in a straightforward way that shows his familiarity with his roots. On "Here Comes My Girl," the harmonies and 12-string guitar are reminiscent of early Byrds; the chorus and organ riff of "Don't Do Me Like That" remind one of the Band. But his imitations are not plagiarisms and they are not homages; rather the influences are absorbed as a means of bringing mainstream rock 'n' roll up to date in a post-punk market.
Petty is influenced by others on the fringe of the new wave (notably other pop artists like Nick Lowe) but stays resolutely away from the more gimmicky aspects of the trend, aspects that were more obvious on his previous albums. There is a straightforward certainty on this album that comes through in the sheer raucousness of "Don't Do Me Like That" and "What Are You Doing In My Life," and the occasional gimmicks, used mostly as introductions, are used for interesting contrasts.
An ultimately more adventurous album, though not as polished, is "Street Light Shine" by the Shirts. Making strong use of their New York background, the band features lead vocals by Annie Golden, an innocent-looking, sweet-sounding Brooklynite (she played lead female flake in the film version of "Hair'), whose voice most often resembles Deborah Harry's. Like Blondie, the band plays around with different forms of musical wit, but while the overall effect is less powerful, the individual songs are more innovative.
In true New York neurotic form, the songs examine the perils of love and existence: "You hear the sirens and you start to wonder/Whether those sounds you hear were distant thunder . . . . You know it's only a minor homicide." The songs are not, however, Tom Waitsian evocations of the underside of street life; the words, however depressed or profound ("In theory I've deduced it -- that love is just illusion"), are matched with music that is fresh and spirited.
Most of the songs are written by combinations of the band's members, with guitar and keyboard player Arthur Lamonica deserving a good portion of the credit. The songs often have a bouncy, '50s sound that reinforces the innocent image of the band while belying the darker implications behind the words: "But through the cellar door/You come and throw me on the floor," Golden sings sweetly in a slow ballad called "Out on the Ropes.'
The band goes out on a limb experimenting with songs about washed-out nightclub stars ("Milton at the Savoy"), complete with cabaret-style horns and an intro out of West Side Story; or new wave sci-fi studies ("Triangulum") a la B-52s. The album ends with an ambitious transition from "Outside the Cathedral Door," with its almost rough-rock backing, to a final instrumental that uses Annie Golden's voice in an angelic-sounding wordless chorus.