Click here to read the introduction to this review.
“Southern Accents” was an album that generated a considerable amount of friction within Tom Petty’s camp, to the point of physical violence – Petty broke his hand after punching the wall during the recording of the opening track, “Rebels”. The song and the track that follows (“It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me”) toy with those stereotypes that I mentioned in part 1 of the review, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some Southerners would shoot up copies of the record while “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” plays in the background.
Leaving the subject matter aside (basically “people down South are good-for-nothing louts, they can only raise hell”), the songs are good. “Rebels” is an infectious rocker (even if the production is a bit distracting), and “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” is a funky cut showcasing that Petty was in a willfully experimental mood. Well, he had someone that was more seasoned in that to assist him – the song was cowritten with Dave Stewart (better known from his work with Eurythmics), as was the other major curve ball on the disc: the hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. It is important to mention that the song had actually been offered for “Long After Dark”. That also gives you a clear indication that the conceptual thread on “Southern Accents” sometimes disappears altogether, in no small part thanks to the disagreements that recording a “concept” caused among Petty and his unit. They were known as rockers, after all. “Southern Accents” was a more polished and (above all) more diverse album. It was also an expensive record, and they labored at it for longer than any of them felt comfortable with at the end. Nowhere is that clearer than on the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. A far, far cry from flagship tunes like “American Girl” and “Refugee”. They only rock at the end, the rest is all the things you can imagine but a rock & roll tune:
The first side finalizes with the title track. I first listened to Johnny Cash’s take on the “Unchained” disc (American II), and it absolutely had me first time around. It is the one “concept” song I deem as respectful and moving, and the lyrics are something which most people can sympathize with it, no matter where they are. But being a Southerner myself I found it so compelling that I bought this album after having listened to Cash’s version just once. As far as Petty and the Heartbreakers’s version goes, I consider it Benmont Tench’s most realized moment with the band.
The second side has one of the most successful experiments of the whole album in the shape of “Make it Better (Forget About Me)”, a song in which New Orleans-styled horns demarcate the territory minutely, while “Spike” tells the tale of a hapless punk who runs into some rednecks. The lyric is witty, but the melody is unremarkable.
The final quarter of the disc is padded with some ho-hum songs – “Dogs On The Run” is an unexciting tune with some exciting riffing, while “Mary’s New Car” is filler any way you look at it. And I swear Los Lobos were to rework it into “Jenny’s Got A Pony”.
The final track is the ballad “Best Of Everything”, and despite two members of The Band being in attendance (and doing what they are known for – Richard Manuel sings and Garth Hudson plays keyboards) it leaves me completely cold.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that there were many songs recorded for this album which were excluded from the final pressing. You can listen to them on the “Playback” boxed set, and these include “The Image Of Me” and “Trailer” – both songs are more likeable that “Dog’s On The Run” and “Mary’s New Car”.
As you can tell from the review, the album on the whole has a high quota of weirdness. That was only natural – there is only so much you can do with rock & roll songs, and while the Heartbreakers wanted to keep on doing what they did well Petty wanted to broach other styles. Nobody would call the album a brilliant one. It can’t even be considered a remarkable addition to Tom Petty’s resume. It was just the ever-obligatory record that any artist who has been putting similar albums for almost a decade has to release. Albums like this one always include some good music, and these songs are often the oddballs. For its part, the songs that stick to the artist’s “classic sound” suffer. And that is the exact definition of “Southern Accents” and the music to be found there. As compelling as “Rebels” is, the production values belittle it. And these production techniques are what drive “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More” smoothly along. But to be frank, I have seen much worse experiments around, so this disc gets a reasonably good score from me.