Dual Review: The Pretenders: Break Up The Concrete/The Pretenders Live At The Highline Ballroom

The Pretenders Deliver that Itch You Can’t Scratch

Artist: The Pretenders

Album: Break Up The Concrete

Company: Shangi-La Music

Website: http://www.ThePretenders.com

“We’ve got a new record out…” Hynde says while taking a quick survey of the packed crowd. “…and you know that means something because I don’t say that much. Frankly I’ve been goofing around lately”

Who knows if Hynde is serious is telling the truth about “goofing around”; but, you wouldn’t be able to tell when you listen to Break Up the Concrete as a whole. The album is, what is being called, ‘back to roots’ rock and roll, and there’s not much to disappoint here. Around six years from their last fully new release (Loose Screw; Artemis Records), excluding a four CD, one DVD box set, Two two CD reissues of older albums and another Two one CD reissues of older albums (quite a busy six years), Break Up the Concrete is everything Loose Screw was not. Loose Screw had a reggae vibe Concrete is rockabilly, Screw was overproduced, Concrete is under-produced, Screw used a lot of prerecorded sounds, Concrete is very straight forward.

Concrete delivers a very different punch than some of the other Pretenders albums. It’s first track and single  “Boots Of Chinese Plastic” opens the Pretenders season with a hard bang and will grab you at the throat;, Much like “Precious” did years ago on the band’s first Album. That doesn’t mean that Concrete is all Power Chords and Distortion, the album has it’s share of Ballads that range from the sarcastically familiar “You Didn’t Have To” to the odd; but, amazing “Almost Perfect” to the dream “Love’s a Mystery”. Anyone afraid of ballads is in for a surprise; the songs are taken with careful recklessness. Most of the songs; feel like their on the brink of going off the uninhibited edge; but, manage to keep their beautiful sounds while delivering a rock edge.

Concrete sees Hynde working with a relatively new bunch of faces. The most notable of them James Walbourne who replaces long time member and fan favorite Adam Seymour, also joining are Eric Heywood on Pedal Steel, the legendary Jim Keltner steps in for original drummer Martin Chambers and Nick Wilkinson (who has been touring with the band for a couple of years) gets his first album recording with the band. The new blood seems to have a good effect on Hynde; the new music is certainly is different from previous works (most so “Almost Perfect) and the band hits the new pavement hard and don’t relent. There are some things there that remind me of the “old” Pretenders music; “Don’t Lose Faith In Me” is a wonderful blend of 1999 Viva El Amor‘s “One More Time” and the rare masterpiece: “Happy Christmas”; and the delightfully over achieving “The Nothing Maker” is a watered down Version of Viva’s “Biker”. That being said Concrete is a fun album that deserves a few listens. Admittedly it doesn’t feel “right” at first; but, after time the genius in the songs begins to radiate.

That’s not to say there aren’t some parts of the album that don’t seem to hit the mark. “The Nothing Maker” is essentially a song about high moral codes which doesn’t inspire to be of high value. Lyrically Hynde “does nothing” here; and her usual masterful weaving of social problems and the effect on the, more than human soul seems to be missing here, replaced is a highly repetitious drawl. Hynde coos: “He makes nothing, he’s the Nothing Maker, he’s the maker of nothing, he’s the nothing Maker” and once you hear the chorus of the song you’ve got the jist of the song. The guy does nothing…over and over and over. There’s also a few song that seem like they dissipate as soon as you stop hearing it. “You Didn’t Have To”, “The Last Ride” and the beautifully written; but, somehow missed “One Thing Never Changed” fade in comparison to the other songs. They’re not bad; but, something about them doesn’t resonate after a listen.

All in all Concrete isn’t the best work by the band; but, that’s not an insult considering what they’ve achieved in twenty-eight years. The album is a great listen and it’s essential; the Pretenders are back and there’s no doubt that they’re going to continue rocking and showing that they truly one of the most enduring and skilled bands in history.

Grade: A-

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Venue: The Highline Ballroom

Artist: The Pretenders

Date: 10.7.08

Despite what you may have heard on the line; The Pretenders haven’t taken that long of a break from touring. Just over a year ago they toured to promote their wonderful Box Set Pirate Radio; doing a lot of the old rarer songs and giving flare to some of the more known songs. Since then the Band has put out a new album; dropped a member, replaced him and added a new instrument to their line-up: A Pedal Steel. Even the most hardened Pretenders fan felt a good deal of uncertainty in what to expect at the Highline Ballroom last night; their performance on the David Letterman show the night before and the Today Show earlier that morning was proof that they “ain’t dead yet”; but, was it proof that they still were a solid band?

Quickly let’s give thanks to the Staff at the Highline last night; they were gracious and extremely friendly; they made the night all the more enjoyable. Let’s also give thanks to RPX 101.9 for throwing the show and having some very friendly staff who provided us with T-shirts and an abundance of smiles. Lastly; but, not least let’s thank Mayor Bloomberg,  and the Parks Department of NYC for using part of the money raised in ticket sales and other things to plant trees all around the city.

Now for the show.

The band was uncharacteristically late; the show starts at 9 they were out at around 9:15-9:30. Not bad at all considering how long some other bands have fans wait. They came out in fine form looking good and smiling and quickly went into their first song: “Chinese Boots Of Plastic”. Instantly they sold the show. With that one song anyone who was wondering if they could still do it knew that they could…and did. The band is slightly different from their album credits; James Walbourne, Chrissie Hynde and Nick Wilkinson return on stage while original Drummer Martin Chambers re-joins the band on stage and a new Steel Pedalist joins the band (adding, no less, more manic and extreme edginess to most of the songs).

The band shot through the first song bursting out: “Every dog that lives it’s life on the chain, knows what it’s like waiting for nothing…and by the way you look fantastic in your boots of Chinese plastic” at the end of the song and sending the crowd into an uproar. The dog on the chain analogy is a good way to describe how the band felt last night. As if they were just about to snap of the chain and rip us to shreds. They rocked and they rocked hard.

Without pause they went into another song on the album: “Don’t Cut Your Hair” a quirky song that has Hynde showing off her bravado and strut through the lyrics of : “Don’t Cut it, Don’t Chop it, It’s like a bomb if you got it don’t drop it yeah! If you got a man go ahead and flaunt it, any guys lying if he says he doesn’t want it.”

The band proceeded to go into a classic “Talk of Town” nicely assimilated with the pedal steel. Today it still has that dreamy effect it had on many years ago in 1981. Some more classics and new songs followed including “Message of Love”, “Loves a Mystery” and “Back on the Chain Gang”; but, the show really came alive when the band went into a Robert Kidney original: “Rosalee”. Here’s where James Walbourne gives fans their first reason not to worry about his being in the band. Hynde’s outstanding voice tears Rosalee through a series of emotions while Wilkinson, and Chambers, give a rhythm section to die for; but, Walbourne rips a solo that is nothing short of phenomenal and reminiscent of Jeff Beck. The songs groovy stop-and-go feel makes it almost unpredictable and seemingly an adventure on it’s on. The Price of admission to the show was paid in full WITH collateral by the band; by, the end of “Rosalee”. the band rocked through some old Favorites; giving not only a new breath of life to them; but, seemingly doping them up on speed. “Day After Day” is not as I remember it on Pretenders II; it knocked me over and spun me around with that memorable guitar line ; drum progression and the unforgettable lyrics (Way up in the sky, over the city, where you sleep tonight, the lights outside your window blink ‘hotel, hotel, hotel, open the blind and dream in a moonbeam). “Brass in Pocket” came and went with much joy; (Hynde even letting me deliver the “Special” back-up line each time). The first part of the show ended with the title track “Break Up The Concrete” a fun Bo Diddly like song which insist we should “Shake it, break it, earthquake it…Break up the Concrete”.

The band quickly came back out for an encore that was essentially to die for. They delivered “Kid” from the first album, wonderfully; but, everyone who was at the show knows that this next song stole the show. “Thumbelina” from the album Learning to Crawl takes on a whole new idea when it’s played by the new band. James Walbourne DESTROYS the song with a great display skill, talent and reckless abandon. Hynde coos “Hush little baby, go to sleep, look out the window and count the sheep, that dot the hillsides in the fields of wheat, across America, as we cross Amer-RI-Ca. what’s important here today:the broken line on the highway!” while James Walbourne delivers a long, blistering solo that tore down the walls of the Ballroom. Anyone who didn’t feel “Thumbelina” might have the same effect as a nuclear bomb is without a pulse. I can’t stress this enough go see this band if ONLY for this song. That wasn’t the end though; with the Highline still electric and suffering from aftershocks of “Thumbelina” Hynde began to speak: “You know there’s been a sudden re-interest in punk rock…not that we give a fuck” and blasted into “The Wait.”. There aren’t really words to describe what happened during “The Wait”; but, if there’s a truth to the expression “Musical Orgasm” then the droves of people smoking afterwords had good reason.

The Pretenders are back and clearly without flaw. Martin Chambers after the show offered some insight to an actual tour. “Late January…I can’t wait”

And Neither can we.

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