Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Pretenders 7: Last Of The Independents

Just as Britpop started to make straight rock popular again in the aftermath of grunge, Chrissie Hynde came across another guitarist up for the impossible task of filling James Honeyman-Scott’s shoes in another incarnation of the Pretenders. Martin Chambers seemingly returned to the fold as well, but a closer look at the credits on Last Of The Independents proves that it’s yet another collection of disparate recordings from different sessions with other rhythm sections (including another refugee from the Smiths). The only constant is Chrissie herself, whom we see right there on the cover.
The sound of the first single, the unabashedly debauched “Night In My Veins”, had pundits declaring it a comeback, but the big hit was the power ballad “I’ll Stand By You”, and it’s between those poles that the album lies. The result is not unpleasant, but hardly indispensible, especially when co-written with ‘80s hit machine Steinberg and Kelly.
The opening sequence of “Hollywood Perfume”, “Night In My Veins” and “Money Talk” is comforting, since the songs all rock, and even the slowdown of “977”, both musically and vocally an homage to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono balladry, is hardly a sentimental tale of a violent lovers’ spat. The hippie social commentary in “Revolution” (not the Lennon song) is where things start to slide to the wimpy, though “All My Dreams” does feature the new “official” lineup of the band and, unfortunately, a spoken monologue.
People who bought the album on the basis of “I’ll Stand By You” may have been jarred by what follows immediately. “I’m A Mother” is a feminist rant set to a danceable Manchester beat thrown off by her tuneless howl of the title and some riffing in a different key. Much more interesting and equally maddening is the snippet of “Tequila”, a country lament that predates the first album. After one lonesome verse it’s superseded by the opaque “Every Mother’s Son”. The rockabilly of “Rebel Rock Me”, complete with hiccupping vocal, recalls “Thumbelina”, possibly the least essential song from her last good album, then we get another by-numbers Steinberg/Kelly collaboration in the way of “Love Colours”. And for some reason she chooses to end the “comeback” with a tepid cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young” (yes, the slow version).
Last Of The Independents is not a bad album, but it’s not what we want from Chrissie. To which she’d likely retort with a string of obscenities, and she’d be right. We’re waffling over whether it should be docked half a point, so watch this space for changes.

Pretenders Last Of The Independents (1994)—3

1 comment:

  1. On the plus side, this was the closest the band sounded to the original Pretenders since “Learning to Crawl”. Bigger drum parts and more intertwining guitars. Adam Seymour was a big find – a much better foil for Chrissie than MacIntosh. He adds more sonic unity to the album. Despite, this, I don’t find it to be as consistent as “Packed”. There’s the rotating rhythm section and the switching producers in the middle of the sessions. The biggest problem is that the songwriting is more up and down, particularly in the second half of the album. A lot of good, but relatively few, great songs. On the other hand, the only real filler is the one-minute fragment of “Tequila” and the nice, but totally unnecessary, cover of “Forever Young”. That song had already been covered enough already.

    Surprisingly, I find four of her collaborations with Steinberg/Kelly to be the best songs on the album. “Hollywood Perfume” has a very neat guitar sound and (of course) a very unsentimental lyrical portrait. Chrissie left herself open to the charge of self-plagiarizing with “Night in my Veins”. The verses sound like “Middle of the Road” and the bridge recalls “Mystery Achievement”. Fortunately, Chrissie’s enthusiasm makes up for it. Then, there’s the controversial “977”. Kelly’s doo-wopping piano melody doesn’t sound all that Pretenders-ish. But the lyrics, told from the point of view of an abused woman, are brilliant. It captures perfectly how abuse can mind-**** the victim, with the only precedent being The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”. (Unfortunately, Chrissie would undermine the point live, saying, “Don’t worry, I ****ed him up pretty good, too”).
    As for “I’ll Stand by You”, this could have been a disaster. Not too many people noticed that the melody is a variation on “Eternal Flame”, the cheesefest Steinberg and Kelly wrote for The Bangles. However, by starting the song off with an acoustic piano instead of a synth, then gradually adding Chrissie’s moving vocals, then guitars, strings and the choir, we end up with a “Hey Jude” effect that works. Chrissie had doubts about selling out, but her vocals make up for lyrics that are a little atypical for her.

    I’d like to throw in a good word for “I’m a Mother”, a song that everyone hates but me. The lyrics a sort of a carnal inverse of “Hymn for Her”, and the music is funky, not something Chrissie has always pulled off. I’m curious about the origins of the song. MacIntosh is on it, Chris Thomas co-produced, and songwriter James Hood was in the short-lived 1988 version of the band. (Chrissie had also added lyrics and vocals to his 1992 “Moodfood” project).
    Nerdy Pretenders collectors note: The version of “Angel in the Morning” on “Pirate Radio” is not the same version as on the B-side of “Night in my Veins”. The single version was produced by Stephen Street and includes strings from, I must assume, is The Duke Quartet.

    The live show from this tour, playing theaters, was a lot of fun, with Chrissie throwing out the F-bomb whenever she damn well felt like it. The strangest moment happened when she introduced Martin Chambers and he went into his own very bizarre, expletive-filled rant. Fortunately, there was only one song included from “Get Close” (“Don’t Get Me Wrong”) and, surprisingly, “Hold a Candle to This”. The best moment happened when some guy down front dared her to play “The Phone Call”, which they did! She then said, “You think I still can’t play ‘em? I wrote ‘em!”. Gotta love Chrissie!