Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kat's Korner: Pretenders' last classic

Kat:  "Everybody chokes," insisted Chrissie Hynde (in "Sense of Purpose"), "when they see someone cut down in their prime."  Then they must have been weeping buckets in 1990 when Pretenders released Packed! because that was the last solid studio album they did.

That album was really something but, when it was released, it was attacked as derivative.  Today, it needs to be seen as one of the band's classics -- along with Pretenders, Learning To Crawl and Get Close.  The band's self-titled debut established who they and their front person (Chrissie) were.  The band's third album (Learning To Crawl) demonstrated Chrissie could both carry on (two of the members were dead) and create art -- she wrote nine of the amazing songs on the album while also bringing a startling new context to the soul classic "Thin Line Between Love and Hate").  Get Close found the band all over the place but doing so damn much -- especially with the last six tracks which are one revelation after another.

All three sold well and then came Packed! which was released in May of 1990 and was in the cut-out bins by August of the same year.  You couldn't give the album away.

Which was so shocking because Chrissie wasn't writing retreads, these were some of her finest songs and she and the band seemed to be having a blast on the album, performing with a confidence that carried over from the last project.

In the years since that album's failure, Pretenders have only released four other studio albums.  None of which have been very good and only one of which sold (1994's Last of the Independents -- which really sold because "I'll Stand By You" was used in the Demi Moore film GI Jane).  Their last attempt was Break Up the Concrete in 2008 which I panned and which is one of the worst albums ever -- not just of 2008, but ever.  The musical stylings of, for example, William Shatner are better than Break Up the Concrete.

But Packed! actually wasn't the last great album by Pretenders.

Five years later, in 1995, the band offered one last classic (so far).  But it wasn't a studio album, it was a live one, The Isle of  View.

As we all know, Barbra Streisand and others love to 'sweeten' their live vocals by redoing them in the studio. So most live albums aren't really live anymore.  They're also not often anything that works as an album.

I'd thought, for example, that Sarah McLachlan would pull it off in 1999 with Mirrorball.  She didn't.  Her two disc set was erratic -- apparently in order to dispel the slams that all of her songs sound alike.  If only. And maybe it would have helped if she'd stuck to one concert to pull the performances from?

Leaving aside Tori Amos' official bootlegs of her Legs & Boots tour, there's really nothing like The Isle of View.  

Chrissie (on rhythm guitar and lead vocals) and original drummer Martin Chambers are joined by band members lead guitarist Adam Seymour and bassist Andy Hobson as well as Damon Albarn on piano, John Metcalfe on viola, Louise Fuller and Richard Koster on violins, Ivan McCready on cello and Mark "Will" Smith on percussion.

The album is amazing.  And I was reminded of that when we went to New York this week to see the United Nations Security Council briefing on Iraq.  Later that day, we went into Academy Records & CDs (near Fifth Avenue, I don't know where, look it up, it's worth visiting).  And while going through the CDs. I was listening to the couple near me.  

Not eavesdropping, they were too loud for me to be accused of eavesdropping.  And I really hated the guy who was telling the woman that Danny Goldberg wrote "this f**king fantastic book called Wonderland Avenue about how he hung out with The Doors in the early sixties when they were huge and . . ."  First, it's Danny Sugarman, from the West Coast.  Danny Goldberg is a music executive (who was NYC based in the late 60s, C.I. told me, and a very good friend of the great rock writer Lillian Roxom).  Sugarman also didn't hang out with The Doors "in the early sixties" -- they weren't around in the early sixties.  He hangs with them starting in 1966.  The only thing more annoying than the invented facts was the puffed up manner in which the man was speaking. 

Why are the ones so full of themselves always the ones who are so wrong?

I was in the Js and not moving, they could go around me, damn it.  At a first visit to any music store, I go through alphabetical and don't miss anything.  Here, I also had Wally following several letters behind.  (Wally's good but he's a child of the downloads.  People my age can scan a row of vinyl or a row of CDs in seconds.)  So they finally get the idea and go around me and I'm spared his further insight into why "Charlton Heston is the f**king best actor of all time!  Epic!  Epic in The Ten Commandments!"

But I'm scanning quick and soon enough they're only a few feet away.  As I get closer, he's expounding on how Bio-Dome is really "far superior to Citizen Kane and other similar films of that ilk" and I'm wondering how the woman got trapped with him when I hear her gasp.

Thinking she stumbled while attempting to escape his jawboning, I put a finger on the spine of the CD case I'd just scanned and look over.  She's holding a CD.

The Isle of  View.

"This is the best CD I've ever heard!" she exclaims.

I'm about to go back to scanning when he says, "Yeah, she did good with 'I Love Rock and Roll' but she didn't write it and she really hasn't left an impact."

The woman's jaw drop as she stares at her idiot.  So I jump in, finger still on CD case spine, with, "Joan Jett did 'I Love Rock & Roll!'  Chrissie Hynde's hits include 'Brass In Pocket,' 'Middle of the Road,' 'Back on the Chain Gang,' 'Show Me,' '2,000 Miles,' 'Don't Get Me Wrong,' 'My Baby,' 'Never Do That,' 'I'll Stand By You' and, with UB40, 'I've Got You Babe'."

I then went back to my scanning as the woman explained the album meant more to her "than Dusty In Memphis and Surfacing combined.  I lived on this album after my worst break up."

And as she spoke about the album, track-by-track, I kept scanning but found myself nodding along.

It's the strongest material the band has being performed live.  

And, most important, it's not rushed.  

Chrissie's confident enough to explore the songs and find new moods and variations.  

The Dusty In Memphis mention?

I can see it because that Dusty Springfield classic was like a gentle awakening and this is the book end to that, a calm closing to a vivid day.

Live albums rarely work as albums.  The Rolling Stones have probably issued more live albums than anyone but there's not even one I consider to be as good as even  their worst studio work.

But Pretenders managed to create a classic in what is an unyielding format and The Isle of  View only becomes finer with each passing year.

The band's last two studio albums faltered musically because everything was so rushed -- Loose Screw by trying to find a groove in the forced breeding of reggae and electronica and Break Up the Concrete by sounding like rockabilly from an 8-year-old-girl who spent the last 4 hours mainlining Pixy Stix before racing around the room on a sugar high.  With The Isle of View, Chrissie was commanding the moment, not unable to keep up with it.

To pull this into the now, if you've heard "Dark Sunglasses," Chrissie's working a similar vibe on that and if she pulls it off for the entire Stokholm album (supposed to be released in June), she may have yet another classic on her hands.  I think that's something we could all celebrate.