Overdue Review: The Pretenders ‘Packed!’

The Pretenders 5th album in their legacy

The Pretenders 5th album in their legacy

In 1990 Chrissie Hynde returned to the studio to record her fifth Pretenders album: Packed! No longer backed with any of the former Pretenders from Martin Chambers to T.M. Stevens; Hynde settled for a series of talented session musicians to fill in the Pretenders name.

Packed! is probably the most ironic of the Pretenders album names; seemingly because the album isn’t packed with much. All in all Packed! is a heavy album that suddenly; before recording, got light.

Many will find this next statement wrong: Packed! is the best album (in intent) since Pretenders II; but, the worst in execution. I say that for a number of reasons. The first is that it sees Hynde out of the dreaded ‘1986 fatigue’ where everything became new wave/punk. She’s back in her element creating rock music not, immediately, influenced by anyone. The second is that the repertoire of songs on Packed! are the most diverse since Pretenders I, their first album, from dreamy ballads like “Let’s Make a Pact” to dark, unsentimental rockers like “Dowtown (Akron)” to groovy Reggae like “How Do I miss You” Packed! is packed with a lot of different ideas.

However Packed! is not without it’s fair share of problems. At best Packed! is fatigued and sad sounding, even when it’s supposed to be uplifting or badass. Hynde seems to be interested in what she’s performing; but, just not ready to perform it. Packed! sees Hynde a little less restricted as well on this album. One of the joys of Hynde is that she always seems to know when to give enough, never too much, never too little. There’s a restriction there that works in their favor. No matter what she does she always seems in control. On Packed! she lets herself go a little more; songs like “Millionaires” see Hynde belting on notes here and there and they don’t sound bad; but, for Pretenders followers it’s a bit of a surprise to see her do so much on a record; there’s works and fails in ways. It’s a nice new thing to revel over; but, the genius of control seems to be gone. Another ‘issue’ with Packed! is the sometimes lyrical value of it; For example “No Guarantee” has Hynde singing and rocking out; but, if one is prepared to say her writing is above par; then their willing to say they know what she’s talking about. Again it’s not bad; but, different and in a new direction.

The last two faults of Packed! are ones that would be corrected after the album with the live set The Isle of View and their next studio album Last of the Independents. The first is the session players: Billy Bremmer, Blair Cunningham and John Mckenzie appear of the album credits the most and they along with the other musicians are great players; but, they’re not a band. Bremmer adds some much needed continuity to a new band because he previously played on “Back on the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone” from the album Learning to Crawl; However, the band feels like session players playing for a talented artist. Nothing wrong with that; but, that’s not what a Pretenders album was. The other problem with the album is the Producer Mitchell Froom is probably a great producer; but, Packed! is not his best attempt. At times the songs seem lazy and he opted into the idea of using the airy echo sound that was dominant at the time for every song and it doesn’t suit the band well at times. Most of the time Packed! feels as if Hynde was performing it whilst half sleepy and in a daze.

Many Pretenders fans debate which is the least favorable album Get Close or Packed! and their really isn’t any answer to that question, Whereas Packed! was full of good ideas and lackluster production, Get Close was full of different Ideas and better (but not the best) production. It really comes down to how you view an album: on intent Packed! is the superior album; but, on execution Get Close proves to more formiddable.

All in all both albums are still better than most; and Hynde’s genius, even if slightly dimished, is still greater than the sum of her peers.

Packed! is an album that will have people thinking “What if?” What if the album was produced better; what would it sound like? Breifly we recieved a glimpse at this on the Isle of View where “Criminal” is performed acoustically and with such poetry and beauty that it solidifies that Packed! wasn’t just another album. Also years later Pirate Radio, the Pretenders box set, would contain an “alternate” version of Hold a Candle to This”; which would prove to be much better produced and sees Hynde with much more enthusiam and a few lyrical changes that better suit the song. Listening to that makes me really wonder if there’s a better produced version of Packed! somewhere, and if there is…

Are we ready for it?

Rating out of 10

8.3/10

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One Response to “Overdue Review: The Pretenders ‘Packed!’”

  1. I have to disagree with much of your assessment because to truly understand “Packed!” you would have to understand it in the context of the time it was released (and failed marriage to Jim Kerr). Yes, the disastrous “Get Close” Tour facilitated a number of personel changes and while it is definitely “The Chrissie Hynde Show”, remember that this album also held much promise from the fact that Johnny Marr from the Smiths had hopped on board and was (before he left) to be a part of the Pretenders newer sound. “Packed!” is bridge between the group that was and “The Last of the Independents” which followed. Hynde sounds alternatively despondent, disallusioned and cynical. “Never Do That” sets the tone and although it’s been called “Chain Gang light”, I believe it still packs an emotional punch. “When Will I See You” is another standout besides the obvious rockers “Downtown (Akron)” and crowd favorite “Hold A Candle To This” (an animal rights rant set to a rock beat). I prefer to think of “Packed!” as the great lost Pretenders album, one loaded, er packed, with much lyrical verve and juice for one’s ears.

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