Break Up The Concrete
All’s fair in the ups and downs of the Pretenders, whose singular mainstay Chrissie Hynde keeps plugging away against time, travesty and circumstance. Just when you she’s left the building, here she comes again with Break Up The Concrete, the ninth Pretenders disc and a regular rave-up that feeds on blues, country and rockabilly. Hynde is no longer the ferocious feline of the early 80s, but her fiery role as singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader of the Pretenders remains a sustainable and essential force.
As is the case with most Pretenders albums, the lead track sets the tone and establishes a precedent. Echoes of Link Wray crossed with shades of Cliff Gallop, channeled though guitarist James Walbourne, is the only way to describe the opening bars of “Boots Of Chinese Plastic.” A chant that turns into a penance, Hynde slyly purrs during the chorus, “and by the way you look fantastic/in your boots of Chinese plastic.” And you may ask yourself: Is this an attempt to lighten the load of guilt? Or is Hynde saying that ultimately all the world’s spiritual ideologies are simply paths to salvation? Or perhaps, as “The Nothing Maker” predisposes, the path leads to a vast and empty wasteland where nothing is accomplished and nothing is gained — or lost.
Rest assured, most of this record is packin’ heat with a clutch lineup that gives Break Up The Concrete plenty of punch. Guitarist James Walbourne is the perfect foil to Hynde, steeped very much in the James Honeywell-Scott School of fluidity and economy. Pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood introduces a new dimension to the Pretenders, which dances around Walbourne’s rumbling leads on the spunky “Don’t Cut Your Hair” before maneuvering the lazy wallow of “Love’s A Mystery” and the country drawl of “You Didn’t Have To.” For this record, Hynde retained longstanding bassist Nick Wilkinson, but replaced original drummer Martin Chambers with legendary session drummer Jim Keltner. Sure, it’s nearly impossible to fault Keltner, who has no problem keeping the tempo simple and lean, but Chambers’ absence lends a strange air to the proceedings. Apparently, he’s still in the band, so go figure.
No longer the chanteuse of new wave, Hynde digs for dirt on “Almost Perfect,” then cedes to the title track and its chunky core of destructiveness. “Break Up The Concrete” would have made a great closer had it not been for the simple, angelic beauty of “One Thing Never Changed.” Yeah, Hynde sure knows how to sequence emotion. But to fully digest the whole package, one simply needs to step back to understand why an endurable collection like this is worthy of a rock and roll icon like the Pretenders.
~ Shawn Perry