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Tom Petty 

Highway Companion (American Recordings)

Tom Petty didn't sue the Strokes girly-pants off when they lifted the intro to "American Girl" for their hit single "Last Night," just as he's downplayed the supposed filching of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' recent single, "Dani California." Petty himself is guilty of the borrowing-tune crime on opener "Saving Grace," a building classic-rock ramble that kicks off with a Stevie Ray Vaughan strut and sports a mean ZZ Top sneer by the second verse. But rather than signal a lack of originality, such similarities should be attributed to Petty's ability to recognize all things instantly timeless. On his third solo album (the last being 1994's quietly introspective Wildflowers), Petty harnesses the slide-guitar gusto of Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and production skills of ex-ELO frontman and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne. The result is a collection of metaphors for life's journeys both big and small, a familiar topic Petty previously explored on 1989's Full Moon Fever and 1991's Into the Great Wide Open. "Square One" is a sparse, simplistic ode to recapturing emotional clarity after taking the long way round, while "Down South" is a backroads search for both Mexico and a fresh chance. Companion's particular trips reveal that the need for stability eventually weighs down even the most determined Free Bird out there, however. "Turn this car around, I'm goin back," Petty orders at one point; "you can look back, babe/But it's best not to stare," he cautions on the otherwise-upbeat-sounding number "Big Weekend." Companion contains the odd misstep — the pun-filled "Ankle Deep" is nearly as hokey as Wildflowers' "Honey Bee" — and few surprises. Then again, material this strong (especially on the heels of the 2002 head-scratcher The Last DJ) doesn't need much fanfare.

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