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3 exhilarating songs showcase music genres being explored in new ways


This is FRESH AIR. Rock, punk and funk - our rock critic Ken Tucker has come up with examples of three genres musicians are exploring in new ways. Mike Campbell, the former member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as the lead of his band, the Dirty Knobs, newly minted TikTok sensation Tommy Richman, and two brothers, Jeff and Steven McDonald, who've been leading the band Red Cross on and off for more than four decades - Ken says they share a knack for sounding upbeat and spontaneous. Let's start with Mike Campbell and the Dirty Knobs.


MIKE CAMPBELL AND THE DIRTY KNOBS: (Singing) I'm hanging on a promise. You hung me out to dry. I can't hang around here. I'm running out of time. You blow like a hurricane through my burning brain.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Mike Campbell came to prominence as lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Growing up about an hour away from each other in Northern Florida, Campbell and Petty share a similar high nasal croon. For the past decade, Campbell has been making Petty-esque music with his own band, the Dirty Knobs, first as a side project, and after the death of Petty in 2017, as his bread and butter. Campbell and the Dirty Knobs' new album, "Vagabonds, Virgins And Misfits" has a number of songs so good they transcend the Petty comparison. And one of the best of them is "Dare To Dream." It features lyrics powered by positivity - lines about how these are the best of times, and this is the good life, even as his tone suggests he may believe there are hidden pitfalls in daring to dream too naively.


MIKE CAMPBELL AND THE DIRTY KNOBS: (Singing) Here comes a brand new day. You can throw the last one. It's going to be all right as long as no one tries to pull a fast one. And this is what you've waited for. There's no waiting anymore. These are the best of times. This is the good like. And all you dare to dream can come true. Dare to dream.

TUCKER: That's Graham Nash singing on the catchy chorus. Speaking of catchy, there's a new song called "Million Dollar Baby" by Tommy Richman that has already given birth to hundreds, probably thousands, maybe millions of TikTok videos of people dancing to this irresistible hit. The music is a deceptively languid groove formed by keyboards, bass, and drums that really gets going when Richman's elastic voice bounces in. Richman starts out singing in a smoky Robinson soprano that drops much lower in spots. We have definitely got a new candidate for the song of the summer here.


TOMMY RICHMAN: (Singing) I ain't never rep a set, baby. Ain't do no wrong. I could clean up good for you. Oh, I know right from wrong 'cause I want to make it so badly. I'm a million-dollar baby. Don't at me. Hell no. You rep my city for so damn long, but you still don't notice me. My sound next. VA next. I'm at they neck. Yeah, yeah. I'm running up a check. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see a bad little mama. She a diva. No matter what happens, he cannot come between us again. I know we're better than friends - better than friends. I took her to queen's gambit - yeah, yeah - showed around my friends.

TUCKER: That music is at once up to the minute and redolent of classic late '70s, early '80s funk. Think Cameo or Lakeside or The Gap Band. The lyrics of "Million Dollar Baby" are as shrewdly optimistic as Mike Campbell's "Dare To Dream." Tommy Richman sings, I want to make it so badly. He is the million-dollar baby, in his own mind at least.

Another act whose music reaches across decades is Redd Kross, a 45-year-old band led by brothers Jeff and Steven McDonald. The key song on their new album is the autobiography titled "Born Innocent."


REDD KROSS: (Singing) When I was 15, I hated school, knew what I wanted to do. But a fate set a cast at just 40 bucks a year. I wrote a song, played a show, quit the only job that I'd ever known. I'm rejecting your old-fashioned wisdom excuse. We are born, born innocent. We all are born innocent. We are born, born innocent. We all are born innocent, original innocence.

TUCKER: Now in their 50s, the McDonald brothers began their careers as teenagers, playing alongside West Coast hardcore acts like Black Flag and Fear.

I saw those kids thrash their way through lots of loud, fast, short songs when I lived in LA in the early '80s. Redd Kross's new copious 18-song album called "Redd Kross" is loaded with sweet harmonies and thunderous guitar riffing. Like Mike Campbell and Tommy Richman, the Redd Kross guys are making music rooted in a deep knowledge of the past and an appreciation of the hard work required to make pleasure sound so spontaneous and so exhilarating.


REDD KROSS: (Singing) It's quite obvious the things that you say. Yeah. You are just a stunt queen with the annoying games that you play. I don't blame you. I don't blame you for trying to make a name for yourself (a name for yourself). Looking for some shame in action, so predictably off the shelf. I say yeah (yeah), no (no), hey (hey), whoa.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed new music by Mike Campbell, Tommy Richman and Jeff and Steven McDonald. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, President Biden and Donald Trump will face the nation in their first presidential debate this season. We'll talk with Shane Goldmacher with The New York Times about what to expect from tomorrow's debate and the swell in donations for Trump's campaign after his felony convictions. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.


MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi, Joel Wolfram and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shock directs the show with Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.