Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pretenders 9: Viva El Amor

After two decades and only six albums, the idea of the Pretenders in 1999 seemed silly. But the near-comeback via Last Of The Independents kept those involved willing to stick around for Chrissie Hynde’s next batch of songs, some of which were, again, written with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
At first sample, ¡Viva El Amor! seems stuck between contemporary beats and anonymous backings, which happens when you pit producers like Stephen Hague and Stephen Street against each other. “Popstar” is a snotty insult of the latest wave of girl singers, with robotic drums and a late cameo by David Johansen. The highly catchy “Human” was better, and a cover of an obscure song from a few years before by Divinyls (whose singer Christine Amphlett was Chrissie Hynde’s only competition in the awesome bangs department). “From The Heart Down” threatens to waver to sappiness, but The Duke Quartet returns from their cameo on Isle Of View to add strings right around the guitar solo, making it quite affecting. “Nails In The Road” is the first great guitar song on the album, a hidden gem, but even though “Who’s Who” is the second song in a row to reference a “queue”, it’s a little on the wimpy side. “Dragway 42” is more of a production than a song, something of a Mideastern travelogue, but the Duke Quartet neatly adds nightmarish accents to Chrissie’s fine vocal.
“Baby’s Breath” is a snotty riposte to a lackluster lover, with some confusing meter jumps. “One More Time” sounds like another run-of-the-mill torch song, but again, her vocal range is astounding. “Legalise Me” is a good pounding rocker that gives guest star Jeff Beck (no slouch when it comes to bangs, either) a change to blow his pyrotechnics everywhere. Then the mysterious “Samurai” manages to slow down the proceedings somewhere between a memory and a hallucination. Her perfect Spanish rendition of a Cuban folk song is given the pre-encore spot, before the mildly dreamy ode to the “Biker” lifestyle, which features the Duke Quartet again.
While the lamentable Get Close was an embarrassing display of Chrissie going soft, the equally venom-free ¡Viva El Amor! is a fine serving of mature, vulnerable pop, for lack of a better term we can’t invent. Perhaps because we expected so little, it is indeed a pleasant surprise, and well worth spending time around.

Pretenders ¡Viva El Amor! (1999)—3

1 comment:

  1. Even though she once again changed producers mid-stream, Chrissie delivered an album that sounds more consistent than the last. The presence of Chambers and Seymour (if not Hobson) on every track certainly helps. There aren’t any knockout hits, but neither are they any bland throwaways. The Pretenders sound continued to evolve, with the main change being loops added to a few tracks like “Dragway 42”, “Who’s Who”, and the remix of “Human” (to increase chances for it to become a hit single, I would imagine). Fortunately, they didn’t make the same mistake U2 had made with “Pop”. The loops were used to merely color and enhance the band’s sound, rather than overwhelm it.

    The album gets off to a great start with the sneering sarcasm of “Popstar”. “Nails in the Road” and “Baby’s Breath” are two more good songs about not taking any crap. “Dragway 42” is actually not a “Mideastern travelogue” – it’s the name of a real place near Cleveland. That one and “Samurai” (references to locales in Italy and Wales, visiting the grave of a Japanese warrior -- ??) are among the most abstract songs that she ever wrote. I also think that “Biker” isn’t meant to be taken literally. She uses the biker as an archetype of freedom and resistance to conforming (“Easy Rider”, maybe?). The straight ballads are a bit weaker than usual, but “Legalize Me” is a great rocker. Plus, she returned to inspired covers with “Rabo de Nube” and “Human”.
    The album wasn’t a big success, but it did provide evidence that this lineup of The Pretenders had plenty left in them.