In these post-everything musical times, there's something reassuring about a new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album. You know that when you plunk down your money for it, there'll be no misguided attempts to sound modern, no silly trip-hop experiments, computer-generated noise, or rap flavoring; you can be confident the songwriting will be dead simple, catchy choruses will abound, and solos will be concise and organic. On the aptly titled Echo, jointly produced by Petty, Rick Rubin, and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, Petty's patented formula reverberates on every solidly crafted tune with the comforting predictability we've come to expect.
Take ''Free Girl Now'': A joyous thumbs-up to a woman who's just jettisoned her domineering boyfriend, it effortlessly pounds its way into your consciousness on a bedrock of chiming guitars and insistent drumming; you'd truly have to hate pop music not to love it. Similarly, just try to resist the easy-rolling, harmonica-embellished groove of ''Swingin''' (a droll sketch about a spunky female desperado), or the transcendent purity of Petty's latest Byrds homage, ''This One's for Me.'' Even a relative throwaway, like the Campbell-penned garage rocker ''I Don't Wanna Fight,'' instantaneously hits the aural G-spot.
While several of the ballads, including the title track and ''Room at the Top,'' invoke the sometimes over-homogenized style of former Petty producer Jeff Lynne, the predominant roots-pop aesthetic here is of a piece with Petty and the Heartbreakers' best work. Part of Petty's charm has always been the apparent ease with which he knocks out instant classics, his ability to project passion seemingly without raising his pulse rate. Preternaturally unruffled as always, the guy shows no signs of creative slippage, no diminution in his belief in the eternal verities (hooks, chops, guitars), no loss of rock & roll heart. If the shifting tides of musical trendiness ever threatened his continued relevance, you can be sure that, just like the above-mentioned heroine of ''Swingin','' this consummate traditionalist would go down fighting. Even then, he probably wouldn't break a sweat. A-