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 » Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]

MUSIC

 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]

MUSIC

 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
»Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
4AD
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
»Robyn
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Konichiwa
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Lisbon
Fat Possum
The Pretenders
Pirate Radio
Rhino

Rating: 7/10 ?


May 22, 2006
If asked to empty her pocket around the time Pretenders I was the talk of the town, Chrissie Hynde would have shown you her brass and a whole lot more. She wanted you to notice her and her band, The Pretenders, and she didn't have to use her arms, her legs, or any other part of her anatomy to get tattooed love boys all in a lather. Before such a term ever existed, Hynde was a Suicide Girl with the bloom fading fast from the rose - but that didn't deter her from flaunting her self-assured, self-defined feminism and naked sexual longing in pristine pop songs that were confrontational, wounded, hopeful and hardened by experience.

Then, years later, long after guitar hero James Honeyman Scott was felled by a drug overdose, Hynde did the unthinkable: she wrote a schlock-encrusted ballad called "I'll Stand By You" that left a black mark the size of Alaska on her permanent record. Deaf to cries of "sellout," Hynde carried on with a bastardized version of The Pretenders and put out bland recordings like Last Of The Independents and Viva el Amor, albums that occasionally flickered with past brilliance - namely, the sleek, black rollercoaster ride "Night In My Veins" - but overall fell woefully short of expectations. Even before that there was 1986's lukewarm Get Close, which spawned the bouncy, bittersweet pop hit "Don't Get Me Wrong," but had little else to offer but lackluster ballads and misguided melodies.

What was the question that Jack Black's wildly sardonic character, Barry, posed in High Fidelity with regard to Stevie Wonder and his gross error in judgment, "I Just Called To Say I Love You"? If memory serves, it was something about whether once-great artists deserved pardons for their latter-day heresies. If Wonder gets a pass, Hynde certainly deserves the same kid-gloves treatment. At sentencing, she won't need to call character witness after character witness to get off with only a slap on the wrist. All she needs to do is present her body of work - uneven as it is - collected here in the prized boxed set Pirate Radio.

Featuring four CDs of music and one DVD culling live performances and videos from 1979 to 1995, Pirate Radio offers a truckload of evidence as proof of Hynde's songwriting talent and yet, at the same time, it raises questions about her integrity and whether The Pretenders actually deserve a boxed set. No stone is left unturned in this 81-song collection, which includes 15 previously unreleased tracks. Obvious highlights like the Ray Davies cover "Stop Your Sobbing," with its rhinestone guitar jangle and Hynde's tough 60's girl-group vocals, and the sly, come-hither classic "Brass In Pocket" were picked from the Pretenders I vine and they've aged remarkably well. Simple, irresistibly catchy melodies always do. As debut albums go, Pretenders I is one of the all-time greats, a precocious mix of New-Wave style, punk attitude and pop charm that served as a coming-out party for an independent, sexually aware woman with a lot to say and a strikingly mature, fallen-angel voice to say it with.

Compiled chronilogically, Pirate Radio's frequency is strongest in discs 1 and 2. Spanning the tragic period that saw the death of Honeyman Scott, whose sparkling, glassy guitar arpeggios served as the perfect foil for Hynde's melodic sensibilities, and the dissolution of Hynde's marriage to Davies, the two discs follow the Pretenders' career from Pretenders I through Learning To Crawl, the last great Pretenders album. Urgent and cutting, "Precious" leads things off, only this version is the previously unreleased Regent Park demo, a gritty precursor that strongly hints at the greatness of the version that ended up on Pretenders I. The single version of "The Wait" is included on Pirate Radio, as is the wistful, serrated hit "Kid," with that rich, evocative vocal performance that made Hynde a star. What's criminal, however, is that "The Phone Call," with its bruising bass line and tight, Sex Pistols-style riffage, is left off, along with a host of other notable tracks, leaving the disc feeling incomplete. The surprising part about Disc 1 is that it gives Pretenders II a fair shake. Some of it, as many critics have described it, sounds like re-hashed Pretenders I, but "What You Gonna Do About It" shows a soulful, defiant Hynde laying down a powerhouse R&B groove and the U.K. single version of "Talk Of The Town" is as sublime a melody as Hynde has ever crafted.

The usual suspects from Learning To Crawl kick off Disc 2, including the rough-and-tumble blues of "My City Was Gone" and, of course, "Back On The Chain Gang," with those nimble bass movements, that familiar sunlight-glistening-off-the-blade, single-note guitar and that great nostalgia-suffused melody. An uptempo alternate version of "Hold A Candle To This" is mixed in with other assorted previously unissued tracks, and though its cutting political and social commentary cuts you to the quick, it's missing the kind of memorable hook The Pretenders are known for. Much of their more recent material suffers from the same malady. That's not the case with "Never Do That," a shout-out to The Byrds' guitar spangle with a graceful vocal performance by Hynde, or "Windows Of The World," or the Learning To Crawl greats like "Thumbelina" or "Middle Of The Road," songs you probably already have in your collection.

"She's as predictable as armeggedon," sings Hynde in "Popstar," and so is much of Discs 3 and 4. Her stinging commentary on the state of pop music and the vapid, almost unconsciously Machiavellian transparency of its major players hits the mark with deadly accuracy. Tied up in a neat, tidy package of gleaming riffs, tight-fisted drumming, subtle handclaps, and wild harmonica wails, "Popstar" sounds more vibrant than I remember, but the same can't be said for the dead weight of "Biker" or the grossly over-produced, if delicately melodic "You Know Who Your Friends Are." Whatever the motivation, whether it was to get more radio play or it derived from something more pure, more recent Pretenders' efforts have strayed way off course from the punk bravado of Pretenders I and the sincerity and realism of Learning To Crawl. The melodies had more subtlety back then and when Hynde displayed tenderness, it was done with more tact. Live versions of "Private Life" and "Lovers Of Today," and three others, are nice addendums to Disc 3, but there's a lot of chaff to hack through to get to the wheat. The same can be said for Disc 4, which loads up with three previously unissued live tracks and three songs that have never seen release.

The archival material will be tempting for long-time fans and there's a lot here to like, but for a band that's really only had two great albums, a boxed set seems unnecessary. The highs are wonderful, but the lows really drag The Pretenders down to a depth one can't help but wish they'd never sunk to. In retrospect, they make Liz Phair's glossy dalliances with the oily Matrix production team seem less aggregious. This isn't Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan we're talking about, or even The Police, a band with a small, but unassailably great catalog. At their best, The Pretenders were The Byrds with more edge and verve, elevating pub rock to a more sophisticated place. At their worst, they were this close to Celine Dion. Stick with Learning To Crawl and Pretenders I, and maybe pick up a greatest hits collection and that's all The Pretenders you'll ever need.

Reviewed by Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he\'ll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other reviews by Peter Lindblad

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