Boots Of Chinese Plastic

Boots Of Chinese Plastic – Letterman – 6th October 2008

Chrissie Hynde – Vocals/Guitar | Martin Chambers – Drums | James Walbourne – Guitar | Nick Wilkinson – Bass | Marc Spencer – Pedal Steel

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The ninth Pretenders album and the first for Santa Monica-based indie Shangri-La Music features a new lineup that includes members of the Pernice Brothers and Son Volt. Resituating the Pretenders’ sound in a roadhouse, the new band infuses leader Chrissie Hynde’s lefty-righteous rockers with bar-band bravado.

As an American ex-pat living among London punks in the late 1970s, Akron native Chrissie Hynde wanted desperately to start her own band and be part of the scene, even if the scene was changing rapidly. She and three guys formed the Pretenders and released their first album in 1980. Three decades later, The Pretenders stands as one of the best rock debuts ever, and a wellspring of durable songs like “Brass in Pocket” and “Mystery Achievement”. That origin story may explain why Hynde continues to record under the Pretenders shingle instead of under her own name. Most of the band’s albums have been glorified solo efforts, with Hynde’s grace-and-gravel voice the only constant in a lineup that changes with every release.

Each new iteration of the Pretenders allows Hynde to tweak her rock sound however slightly, to move in different directions. Break Up the Concrete– the ninth Pretenders album and the first for Steve Bing’s Santa Monica-based indie Shangri-La Music (not to be confused with venerable Memphis indie Shangri-La Records)– features a new lineup that includes Pernice Brother James Walbourne on guitar, former Son Volt’er Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Pretenders touring bassist Nick Wilkinson on bass, and veteran session musician Jim Keltner on drums (who will be replaced by original drummer Martin Chambers on tour).

Resituating the Pretenders sound in a roadhouse, the new band infuses Hynde’s lefty-righteous rockers with bar-band bravado, adding a rumbling Bo Diddley beat to the title track and a stomping rockabilly recklessness to opener “Boots of Chinese Plastic”. But they’re an agile and restrained crew, adding raw gravitas to barely-hanging-on ballads like “You Didn’t Have To” and “The Last Ride”. Aside from some nice country flourishes, it’s really the same as it ever was: The tumbling, tight-jointed riffs of “Rosalee” recall the punchy rhythms of early hits like “Tattooed Love Boys” and “Cuban Slide”, while “Don’t Lose Faith in Me” and “One Thing Never Changed” possess similarly graceful melodies and tough-minded lyrics as “Kid” and “I’ll Stand By You”.

Even so, Break Up the Concrete seems a bit uneven: The faster numbers begin to sound the same after a while, and the album hits a slight lull halfway through. It may be the best Pretenders album since the 1980s, but that isn’t really saying much. For all her rock gusto, Hynde isn’t prolific. This is only her fifth album since the Pretenders’ career-defining comp The Singles in 1987, and Break Up the Concrete handily skirts the studio sheen and reaching-more-than-grasping quality that defines 1994’s Last of the Independents and 2002’s Loose Screw.

The new lineup’s roughed-up sound proves a natural setting for Hynde’s signature vocals perfectly and enlivens her performances. At 57, she still sounds as strong as she did 30 years ago, retaining all her brassy defiance and seductive authority. Hynde still knows how to manhandle a rocker and soft-sell a slow number, spitting the seedy lyrics of “Don’t Cut Your Hair” as deftly as she sings the tender “Don’t Lose Faith in Me”. The title track features her loosest performance, as she dips into the low end of her range and adding some guttural sounds between choruses. That voice demands better material, though. The spiritual lyrics on “Boots of Chinese Plastic” don’t exactly trip off her tongue, and “The Nothing Maker” reaches new depths of meaninglessness: “He makes nothing,” she sings on the admiring chorus, “he’s the nothing maker/ He’s the maker of nothing.” Sense is obviously one of the many things he doesn’t make.

The album hinges on the slower tracks: “Love’s a Mystery” rides its metaphor into true-crime territory, “The Last Ride” is a late-in-life reminiscence worthy of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and closer “One Thing Never Changed” is Hynde at her most vulnerable and wounded. The years haven’t touched her pipes, but they have changed her outlook, making her not just feistier but a little more straightforward and forgiving. As a result, Break Up the Concrete sounds simultaneously more agitated and more settled, a contradiction that says a lot about Hynde. True, her best and most exciting material may be long behind her, but three decades into her career, she still has a lot to say and despite this album’s flaws a determinedly distinctive way to say it.

*Pitchfork October 7th 2008 – Stephen M. Deusner