The Pretenders are card-carrying members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and on the basis of their first three records, they heartily deserve it. But the last of that batch, Learning to Crawl, came out in 1984, by which point two of the four original members were dead, and their work since then has been—let’s just say it—kinda lame. The twelve best songs off their last five albums pale next to the twelve on their debut. The reviews over the years have almost always been respectful because nobody wants to diss Chrissie Hynde. She’s too cool, and she’s too good, still full of youthful swagger after all these years. Her voice, capable of being vulnerable and then vicious within a single phrasing, expresses the spirit of spontaneity that is at the core of rock’s appeal.
Spontaneity is clearly the goal of the Pretenders’ latest, Break Up the Concrete. Hynde assembled her band in a vintage recording studio in Los Angeles and jammed the whole thing out in less than two weeks. It is a good notion to avoid all the nob-fiddling and precious overdubbing that inevitably occurs when you stay in the studio too long. But the truth is, this incarnation of the Pretenders is so technically adept there’s nothing at all ragged or improvisational about the final product. Besides Hynde, there is only one other surviving member of the Pretenders, drummer Martin Chambers, and though he’s still in the band, he didn’t get to play here because Hynde preferred the “different groove” of studio ace Jim Keltner. “Martin had no problem letting Jim take over for the project,” according to Hynde, a legendary dictator.
As a singer, Hynde sounds as strong and vital as ever, and on the more rocking tunes, like the title track and “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” the excellent three-chord stomp that opens the album, she cuts loose with the unrestrained zeal of a teenager. She’s equally skillful at ballads, but there are a few too many slow numbers here, and at least a couple of them suffer from creeping self-consciousness, the enemy of good rock. In some places, the lyrics are limp (“Everyone’s chasing a reason to live / Mostly they take more than they give”) and in others, there’s an overabundance of pedal steel guitar, an instrument that has become something of a crutch for aging rockers, a way to make generic tunes sound appropriately mature and meaningful. Fortunately, these defects are relatively minor. Though the album can’t really stand with the Pretenders first three, it approximates them pretty well, like a faux vintage T-shirt that’s faded just right.