Album Review: The Pretenders – Break Up the Concrete

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It’s been almost three decades since Chrissie Hynde kicked rock music in the butt with her signature badass attitude and distinctive vocals as front woman for The Pretenders. And somehow, Hynde has managed to steer clear of the female rock star cliché all these years, wearing her causes on her sleeve; sometimes confrontational, sometimes wise. Now after a six year absence, Hynde is back with her latest effort, Break Up the Concrete. Remarkably, this album led her straight back to her roots in America’s heartland, where her music managed to pick up a little bit of twang.

Since their initiation, The Pretenders have always been about Hynde. After all, her voice, like velvety sandpaper, is their trademark. Hynde remains the only member from the band’s original lineup to date, but now she’s got a group of well-traveled session dudes, including drummer Jim Keltner, to back her up. It’s a bit surprising that even at 57 this chick is still bitchin’ and ready to kick down any door with her brassy defiance and seductive authority!

With a mix of galloping rockabilly and a funky country/western twist, Break up the Concrete allows Hynde to deliver her famous snarl with bravado and enough gusto to take out an entire room. Sure the sound is raucous, but the music proves wise, while carrying a romantic side with it as well. Although Break up the Concrete was recorded in a mere 10 days, it was by no means a rush job. The Pretenders’ addition of a twangier feel, carried by a hard-edge stomping rhythm that’s reminiscent of a bar-room brawl scene in Roadhouse (you know, the Swayze flick), actually helped the group’s sound evolve into something much better.

With rockabilly goodness, “Boots of Chinese Plastic” and “Break up the Concrete” stomp on by with a redneck quality that’s extremely loveable, while slower numbers like “The Last Ride” calm our spirits down. Honestly, when it comes right down to it, this album isn’t much different from their earlier work and it most certainly isn’t country music either! Sure, Hynde may have added some subtle country-esque flourishes, but the tight sounding riffs in their cover of “Rosalee” recall the same bumpin’ beats of their early hits such as “Tattooed Love Boys and “Cuban Slide.” Even some of the ballads carry similar traits found in “Kid” and “I’ll Stand By You”.

The album’s only big mistake was that it didn’t include the duet with Willie Nelson. It’s a shame “Both Sides of Goodbye” didn’t make the final cut, because the song features Nelson’s unmistakable finger picking and is by far the best offbeat pairing since Jack White teamed up with Loretta Lynn on “Portland, Oregon” a few years back. Make sure you don’t miss this one, since the track is only available as an exclusive iTunes bonus track.

Break up the Concrete is unmistakably the best work we’ve seen from Hynde and The Pretenders in a long time, but it isn’t earth shattering, either. After all, Hynde has never been that prolific. Here and there the lyrics become a bit repetitive and the songs start to blur towards the middle. Yet despite its flaws, the record is still kicking and it’s a wonderful addition to their repertoire. Overall, Break up the Concrete has great vocals, strong lyrics and some wicked rhythms despite its share of throwaways, and while it may not be that special or complicated, it doesn’t have to be. Hynde is just that loveable!

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