Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Pretenders

  • Pretenders [Sire, 1979] A-
  • Extended Play [Sire EP, 1981] B+
  • Pretenders II [Sire, 1981] B+
  • Learning to Crawl [Sire, 1984] A-
  • Get Close [Sire, 1986] B
  • The Singles [Sire, 1987] A
  • Packed! [Sire/Warner Bros., 1990] A-
  • Last of the Independents [Sire, 1994] **
  • Isle of View [Warner Bros., 1995] Neither
  • ¡Viva el Amor! [Warner Bros., 1999] A-
  • Loose Screw [Artemis, 2002] A-
  • Break Up the Concrete [Shangri-La, 2008] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Pretenders [Sire, 1979]
Tough gals, tough gals--suddenly the world is teeming with tough gals. And Chrissie Hynde is a good one. Maybe not all of her songs are championship singles, but she's got more to offer emotionally and musically (and sexually) than any of the competition, unless Patti counts. She's out for herself but she gives of herself as well; when she alternates between rapacity and tenderness you don't feel she's acting coy or fucked up, although she may be. And she conveys these changes with her voice as well as with her terse, slangy, suggestive lyrics. James Honeyman Scott's terse, slangy, suggestive guitar steals don't hurt either. A-

Extended Play [Sire EP, 1981]
The medium-priced four-to-six-track twelve-inch is introductory product suited to young bands who are getting their songwriting shit together (or have already shot their songwriting wad). For this young band, however, it's interim product--two singles that went nowhere on the charts, one B side that goes nowhere period, one B side that goes to Cuba with Bo Diddley, and a live version of a single that already went somewhere (though live it goes even further). All of it you've heard before, and some of it you'll hear again, when they get their follow-up album shit together. B+

Pretenders II [Sire, 1981]
Even though "The Adultress" comes off as an empty boast, I find Chrissie Hynde more memorable when she's dishing than when she's wishing--her tough surface has more depth than her heart of gold. Anyway, it's always the words I remember, not the melodies. I mean, I never thought they were such hookmeisters to begin with, but at times this relies so much on texture and flow it sounds like a punk Hissing of Summer Lawns. Which is kind of an achievement, actually. B+

Learning to Crawl [Sire, 1984]
"I'm not the kind I used to be/I've got a kid, I'm thirty-three" is certainly a quotable quote, and whether rock-and-rolling her baby or growling at fat cats Chrissie Hynde backs it up. It's as if two deaths in the family plus her fruitful union with Ray Davies have convinced her beyond any lingering adolescent doubt that other people are there; Chrissie the fuck-off queen always had these humanistic attitudes in her, and it's good to hear her make the thin line between love and hate explicit. Unfortunately, they're still only attitudes, which is to say that like her mate she hasn't thought them through all that much, and as a result the impressive songcraft here doesn't bear hard scrutiny. But since unlike her mate she keeps her nostalgia under control, she gets her comeback anyway. A-

Get Close [Sire, 1986]
She's in a mature relationship, she loves motherhood, and she earns her keep fronting a band. The new guys are funkier than the old guys, the tunes are up to par, and despite "How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?"--it's offensive to dis black pop when your idea of on-the-one is "Fame" cops--her lyrics are pretty mature, with a sisterly offering I'd like to hear some soul man put across. But let's face it--it's hard to make exciting music out of a mature relationship even when fronting a band is the meaning of your life. B

The Singles [Sire, 1987]
In a pop environment where even honest artists make a virtue of fabrication, Chrissie Hynde expresses herself. Her fierce, instinctive independence makes even Joan Jett's aggressiveness seem like a pose; unlike Patti Smith, she doesn't append an avant-garde escape clause to her deal with the rock and roll verities. Accessible though they are, her song structures follow no formula anyone else could copy, growing spontaneously (she tells us) out of a personal rhythmic relationship to beats and riffs much too powerful and uncute to be called hooks, which is what they are. Since she has the sense of humor of your average ayatollah, her self-righteousness can be a drag--this is her best album because the radio audience keeps her in line. But she's so tough that there's no reason to think it's her testament. A

Packed! [Sire/Warner Bros., 1990]
You can catch more pop with misery than you can with connubial bliss, and whether she's feeling her losses or picking up the get-down, Chrissie Hynde is on her game again. Unlikely highlights include a medium-tempo take-me-back plea, a sendup of class war, an obscurely nasty animal-rights song, and yet another medium-tempo take-me-back plea. That's right, she's groveling--yet she sounds like her own woman doing it. Must have something to do with the melody lines. A-

Last of the Independents [Sire, 1994]
style over substance ("Night in My Veins," "I'm a Mother") **

Isle of View [Warner Bros., 1995] Neither

¡Viva el Amor! [Warner Bros., 1999]
Pretenders songs post-Learning To Crawl emulated the concision and riff-riding lyricism of "Brass in Pocket" while doing without the passion and focus that made it so fiercely erotic, so vivacious and fuck-you, so independent, so special. They felt pop, felt tuneful and shaped and legibly emotional, but in the end they were atmospheric. Here Chrissie Hynde's writing is sharp again--the riffs have an edge, the lyrics bite. There's some strong Janis Joplin soul, a pretty ballad in Spanish I bet her young Colombian husband understands, a closer with the ridiculously in-character refrain "You bring the biker out in me," a line that goes "It's only baby's breath" in your head long after it's over. And the grudge she bears against the opener's "Popstar" is such a joy to her that she rides the "Hang On Sloopy" motive as if she thought of it yesterday, driving three consecutive song-doctored classics before her: one that references her circulatory system, one that advises love "From the Heart Down," and one that begins with the latest sally in the class war she'll never surrender: "If this is public transportation/What are you doing here?" A-

Loose Screw [Artemis, 2002]
Of course Chrissie Hynde's not "back." She never went away, and if this record proves anything it's that she never will--as long as she gets a production budget. Figure she got into a spiky mood after 1999's Viva El Amor failed to impress radio or her U.S. label of 20 years. Where that album demonstrated the emotional utility of a comfortable tune, here the Steinberg-Kelly plush is down to two tracks and doesn't quite go with material that finds its spirit in the persistence of punk and its soul in reggae basslines. For a 51-year-old who refuses to act her age, pretty convincing. Stick her on one of those diva specials and watch her snarl. A-

Break Up the Concrete [Shangri-La, 2008]
For some people, love never gets easier ("Boots of Chinese Plastic," "You Didn't Have To"). **

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