Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Pretenders, Pretenders 2
Reissue, 2006, Rhino Records

This isn't the album with that famous song—the one that Scarlett Johansson karoakes in Lost In Translation. Teenagers in 50 years may not sidestep to any of these songs (okay, well a few may) as they do even now to “Brass In Pocket”, but that doesn't mean these aren't classic songs. The Pretenders had a lot of hit songs, but they had even more good songs, and some of the best are on this album.

Rhino has remastered the original 12 tracks along with 15 live songs (including the famous one I mentioned), a demo of “Talk of the Town” (one of the loveliest pop songs ever written) an outtake of “I Go To Sleep” and the radio outtake of “Pack It Up” (the originals being from Pretenders 2).

The Pretenders will long be known, along with Blondie, as one of the most influential pop/punk/rock hybrid bands. Chrissie Hynde's songwriting and vocal range assured that each album would be a mix of the three genres, and the Pretenders 2 features a little of each one.

Her voice can howl and catapult with the fierceness of Patti Smith. “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, “Message of Love” (a song definitely showing Chrissie Hynde's Ray Davies influence, which is understandable considering A) she was a fan of his and B) she was in a relationship with him) are, relative to the rest of the songs, hard-core rockers. “Pack It Up”, while also fast and frenzied, always seemed like it was packaged to fill the need of “one more rock song”, though I do love the lyrics. She really lets someone have it towards the end: she asserts that she hates the person's insepid music collection, his (?) trousers, and his appalling taste in women. Ha! It's obvious she's talking about a former lover (or maybe just a skanky man she knows), but she ends by throwing the guy in with all the “scumbags”.

While much of the music is squarely in the rock genre, Chrissie Hynde effortlessly flows into a softer, romantic mode (though I still wouldn't want to make her mad). Much like the newer band The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Pretenders, in addition to having a gift for raucous rockers, also perform haunting, beautiful ballads. “Birds of Paradise” is a gorgeous, melancholy and delicate song. I love the way her voice scales through five notes on the word “about”. The melody of “I Go To Sleep”, a Ray Davies cover, is lovely, but the music is a bit too schmaltzy for me.

“Talk of the Town” exists somewhere between rock and balladry. It has always been the stand-out track of the original album for me. The song as a whole fits together so well. Her voice glides along the beautiful melody and the music is perfectly composed. It never loses focus and never seems cobbled together. The gorgeous “Day After Day” similarly exists between genre boundaries.

The Rhino notes list that the live songs are drawn from their appearance at the Santa Monica Civic Center in 1981, with some of the tracks being collected on the live album Pretenders Live At The Santa Monica Civic (Warner Bros., 1982). The “Talk of The Town” demo is from 1979, dating the song as being composed before their debut.

The live songs are well-produced and very clear. It sounds like we're right up there on the stage with them, but without any interference or feedback. We can hear the audience clearly, too. Almost all of the live songs originate from Pretenders 2, with a few exceptions. We have “Brass In Pocket” (a song I love, but has been way overplayed); however, the playfulness of the original doesn't translate live. The song's lost some of its punchiness, instead being played more like a straight-up rock song. “Up The Neck” and “Kid”, both originally on their debut album, are also played more raucously than the originals. “Kid” loses its delicacy live, but that's understandable: it's easier to be subtle in a recording studio than in an arena-type environment. The already hard-rocking songs like “Adulteress” and “Message of Love” translate the most effectively live. They require more attitude and very little subtlety. The musician's playing on all of the tracks is excellent, and for being a 25 year old recording of a live show, the remastering makes the set sound new and immediate.

The demo version of “Talk of the Town" is identical in composition to the released version, but the quality is muted due to the constrictions of (probably) not having an adequate studio or equipment to record with. It's obviously a demo, but it's a demo of one of the band's most perfect songs. The outtake of “I Go To Sleep” isn't all that much different than the original-- we don't get to hear the band mess up and yell profanities, or any of the off-the-record moments associated with outtakes. Nothing torrid from the outtake of “Pack It Up” either; it's an instrumental version of the song with the talking originally relegated to the background taking the forefront. I'd rather have the vocals back; that's the best part of the song.

It's important to remember that Pretenders 2 is the last time this band compliment plays together. After this album, one member died of a drug overdose and another left because of a drug problem (later fatally overdosing, also), and while Chrissie Hynde carried on, employing various musicians to fill-out the lineup over the years, this particular iteration of The Pretenders wouldn't be heard again.

The casual listener of The Pretenders may stick to the greatest hits (which has a few of these songs), but the real fan will appreciate this enhanced version. If you don't already have the album, it's definitely worth paying a little extra for this double, remastered edition. I wouldn't say the $25 is worth it for the demo and the outtakes, but if you're a fan, you'll want to own the remastered versions. The new production has made the songs come alive again, 25 years later.

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