CD Review of Break Up the Concrete by The Pretenders
Recommended if you like
The Clash, Joan Jett, John Lennon
Label
Shangri-la
The Pretenders:
Break Up the Concrete

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

T
here’s not a lot that’s been consistent about the Pretenders… except, of course, for Chrissie Hynde, a seemingly ageless rocker whose sneering, suggestive vocals have defined the band’s style and stance since the beginning. Beyond that, however, any common connection starts to diminish. In their 30 years of making music, entire line-ups have come and gone, and except for the band’s earliest incarnation, most of those musicians have merely filled the role of sideman to Hynde herself. Even long-serving drummer Martin Chambers is seemingly absent these days, leaving the band’s ever-feisty frontwoman to claim the Pretenders brand solely as her own.

That’s no surprise, though; such is the nature of rock ‘n’ roll, an occupation that finds transience the rule rather than the exception. So too, it’s often the case that the singer is the one that lays claim to the group’s signature sound. Witness the slow unraveling of Van Halen, Yes, Journey and Genesis when their original front men departed. Conversely, there are numerous tales of vocalists appropriating their groups’ legacy as his or her own, as Paul McCartney’s solo take on the Beatles’ catalogue can attest. But while a case could be made that the Pretenders have essentially been Hynde’s vehicle since early on, the question remains as to why she hasn’t simply taken the Pretenders off the marquee and carried on under her name alone.

That argument certainly ought to come up as far as Break Up the Concrete is concerned. With Hynde alone at the helm, and subtle shifts in direction, it seems somewhat questionable to call this a Pretenders album. True, some of the songs are vaguely reminiscent of prime Pretenders, particularly the whiplash rhythms of “Boots of Chinese Plastic” and the raucous rockabilly of “Don’t Cut Your Hair,” both of which bring early barnburners like “Brass in Pocket” and “The Wait.” But where Hynde once railed and wailed with due measure, she’s now overly pontificating, oversimplifying and belaboring the point as well. The aforementioned “Don’t Cut Your Hair” finds her repeating the title over and over at breakneck pace, while the swaying “The Nothing Maker” can do no better than a repetitious refrain (“He’s the nothing maker / He’s the maker of nothing”). Detours into the swaggering bottleneck blues of “Rosalee” and the lounge-like lethargy of “Almost Perfect” don’t boost the quality quotient either.

Pretenders

Fortunately, though, Hynde does rebound, although the results don’t show until midway through the set. Wilco’s Eric Heywood takes a predominant role overall, adding the soft sheen of steel guitar to many of the tracks, and while “Love’s a Mystery” and “You Didn’t Have To” aren’t quite country, they do exude the aura of Americana. The album’s best entry comes in the form of “The Last Ride,” a resolute, mid-tempo tune that gives the album its best candidate for a keeper.

Mainly, though, Break Up the Concrete will likely be remembered as a minor addition to the Pretenders’ catalogue, the sign of a band on a continued decline. Hynde would be well advised to take leave of their legacy and move forward by making music that can be identified solely as her own.

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