The Pretenders - "Almost Perfect" (mp3)
If I tried to imagine a physical representation of the sound of The Pretenders' new album, Break Up The Concrete, it would something like thin, solid sticks strung together with a narrow little thread. That's not really a value judgement, just an expression of how wispy and minimalist the aesthetic is, chunky percussion strung together with trebly slide guitar licks and Hynde's silkily androgynous voice way further to the front of the mix than it's ever been. The original lineup was always one of the most muscular of the new wave bands, and over the years subsequent iterations of the band have been even more riff rock-y, including the version I saw live in September before the album's release. But on Break Up the Concrete, even the uptempo rockers have a dry, sparse sound more akin to a White Stripes record than a Pretenders record, at least in terms of production. And though I like some of the rockers, particularly the single "Boots of Chinese Plastic," it's really the lilt of songs like "Almost Perfect," one of Hynde's many odes to her native Ohio, that works better within that sound.
I never heard the Pretenders' last album, 2002's Loose Screw, but I understand it was a hard turn into the reggae and dub influences that had been minor but evident from the beginning. And in that sense, Break Up The Concrete is also an expansion of a latent genre strain of the Pretenders sound, the twang of "Back On The Chain Gang" stretched all the way over slighter songs that still maintain a bit of that spark and attitude, but not all of it. Of rock's old fogeys that I've bought albums by this year, the Pretenders' belongs somewhere in the lower middle, above Elvis Costello and Little Feat, but well below Jonathan Richman, Walter Becker, David Byrne, the B-52s and R.E.M.