The Pretenders’ new Alone, which the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced, is being billed as the group’s first new record in more than half a decade, because 2008’s Break Up the Concrete was the last CD to appear under that band name. In fact, though, you could argue that every Pretenders album is a Chrissie Hynde record and vice versa, in which case it has been only two years since the last one, the excellent Stockholm, an ostensible solo project that sounded as much like a band effort as Concrete or Alone. Indeed, Alone started as a solo project, too, and, though it features a full band, it includes none of Hynde’s old sidekicks. In any event, she appears to be on a bit of a creative streak, with Stockholm in 2014 followed by a memoir in 2015, and now this terrific collection.
The title track, which opens the CD, signals that Hynde has lost neither her rebellious spirit nor her quirkiness at age 65. The song features a spoken vocal with idiosyncratic lyrics about how she prefers to be alone, and it concludes with kiss-off lines that recall the opening number on the Pretenders’ 1980 debut: “I like being alone. What are you gonna do about it? Hmm? Absolutely fuck all / Yeah, I’ll do whatever I want.” Then there’s the self-deprecating “I Hate Myself,” in which Hynde repeats that line over and over like a mantra; and “Holy Commotion,” the album’s first single, which sounds like a wedding of punk and disco.
But these tracks are atypical on an album dominated by mid-tempo love songs that belie the “Alone” posture and recall such earlier triumphs as “2000 Miles” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” The new album’s “Blue Eyed Sky,” “The Man You Are,” and dreamy, seductive “Let’s Get Lost,” three of the best numbers, all couple indelible melodies and confessional lyrics about romantic love to some of the most gorgeous vocals Hynde has ever delivered.
Aurbach, who plays guitar and keyboards, adds all sorts of welcome sonic touches, perhaps most notably guitar from the inimitable fifties rocker Duane Eddy, who adds his trademark twang to “Never Be Together.” (The guitar at the beginning of “I Hate Myself” is also either Eddy or Eddy-influenced.) But it is Hynde’s voice that remains the Pretenders’ greatest calling card. Simultaneously projecting defiance and vulnerability, she remains one of the finest singers in all of rock.
Hugh Prestwood, I Used to Be the Real Me. Sings Prestwood on a song called “The Suit”: “It was one of those occasions where you had to wear a suit / So his wife drove down to a thrift store and found him a beaut.” Turns out the occasion was the man’s funeral. Another number, “September Song,” is sung by a dead man, ostensibly to the love he left behind. Yet another cites Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks and the iconic photo of a sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square at the end of World War II and asserts that all the people in both pictures are proclaiming that they’re lonely. OK, so this isn’t exactly the cheeriest album of the year. But Prestwood is a talented singer and songwriter and this folk collection deserves attention. Don’t miss the lovely, melancholic “April Fool,” which has already been covered by pop/folk singer Michael Johnson and sounds as if it has the potential to become a standard. Judy Collins, who has recorded and championed Prestwood’s material, guests on two tracks.
Mandy Rowden, 1000 Miles. I can understand why Rowden opted to open this album with “Let Me In”—it’s a likable up-tempo country rocker and possibly the best bet here for success as a single. But it’s also among the most mainstream tracks on an album that works best when Rowden’s personality shines through most. When it does, such as on the exquisite “Think About Me,” she’s right up there in Lucinda Williams territory. Her songs are about relationships found and lost, and the best of them incorporate the sort of details that make them seem to be drawn from real life. Rowden, who plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, wrote everything here except for “Were You in Love” (by her friend Colin McDonald) and “Five O’clock World,” the Vogues’ sixties hit that delivers the same basic message as the Crystals’ “Uptown” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Out on the Street.” Joe Carroll produced and his wife Carrie Ann Carroll (who delivered an auspicious album of her own in 2014) is among the backup vocalists.
Shel, Just Crazy Enough. This likably inventive album, which the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart coproduced, came out last May but didn’t reach my ears until recently. Shel, whose work conjures up a folkier, quirkier version of the Bangles, take their name from the initials of the sisters who comprise the group—Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza Holbrook. The four all sing (Eva is the lead), and they play instruments that include dobro, banjo, drums, guitar, and mandolin. “Is the Doctor in Today?” finds the singer/patient saying, “Would you tell him that I can’t recall my name…not sure where my mind has gone.” “You Could Be My Baby” proclaims, “You seem just crazy enough to love . . . let me set the stage / Sanity is just a cage.” And in “Rooftop,” they sing, “Step outside your mind / ’Cause everyone is mad up here.” I think I detect a theme, or at least a pervasive sensibility.
Jeff Burger’s books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.