Music Reviews: Pretenders Classics Expanded, Plus Dion, Carole King, James Taylor, and More
The Pretenders’ eponymous 1980 first album ranks among the best debut LPs in modern rock. Pretenders II, their 1981 sophomore effort, is somewhat less impressive but contains enough winners to suggest that its predecessor was no fluke.
On the debut, which overflows with energy and attitude, Chrissie Hynde emerges fully formed as a dynamic, assertive vocalist like no other while her band—the late lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon as well as manic drummer Martin Chambers—provide the perfect accompaniment. This is punk/new wave, all right, but it also manages to be music that speaks to a wide audience. Addictively hooked songs like “Precious,” “Up the Neck,” “Tattooed Love Boys,” “Brass in Pocket,” “Kid,” and “Mystery Achievement,” all by Hynde, are among the tracks that are now justifiably deemed classics. So are “The Wait,” which she co-wrote with Farndon, and the album’s cover of “Stop Your Sobbing,” the group’s 1979 first single, which was produced by Nick Lowe and written by the Kinks’ Ray Davies (who had a relationship with Hynde in the 1980s).
Pretenders II incorporates a bit of filler, especially on the original LP’s second side, and is a bit less potent overall, perhaps partly because Honeyman-Scott and Farndon were both in heroin’s grip by the time this record was being made. Still, it includes at least four terrific tracks: Davies’s “I Go to Sleep,” which shows off Hynde’s vulnerable, softer side, as well as “Day after Day,” which she wrote with Honeyman-Scott, and her own “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town.”
Both records have already been reissued multiple times: Rhino offered two-CD sets in 2006 that supplemented the original material with live tracks, outtakes, and demos; and in 2015, the Edsel label offered deluxe editions of the eight Pretenders albums released through 1999 that incorporated DVDs containing TV appearances and music videos. Now Rhino has added two more expanded editions of the first two albums, both curated by Hynde, to the discography. They feature LP-sized booklets that showcase previously unpublished photos as well as new liner notes by Will Hodgkinson, the chief rock critic for London’s Times newspaper. The new editions omit the Edsel releases’ DVDs and a couple of their tracks but each collection fills three CDs and includes a fair amount of material that the earlier versions lack.
Pretenders, for example, contains 55 tracks, a considerable increase from the Edsel release’s 31; moreover, 18 of the selections are previously unreleased and another nine have not been on CD until now. The former batch includes 1979 live performances broadcast by the BBC, among them standouts like “The Wait,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” “Kid,” “Up the Neck,” and “Mystery Achievement”; the latter embraces numbers from a high-octane 1980 Boston concert that features some of the same songs, plus “Private Life,” “Talk of the Town,” and more. Pretenders II, while not quite as loaded, includes 43 tracks, 11 more than the corresponding Edsel release. Nine of the numbers are previously unreleased, including five from an August 1980 New York City concert; three from a 1981 Santa Monica, California gig; and an alternate mix of “Louie Louie” (a lesser Hynde composition, not the Kingsmen classic).
For most Pretenders fans, the decision about whether to buy these new packages will likely depend on what they already own and the extent of their devotion. If you have the earlier Rhino or Edsel deluxe editions, you’ll probably want to upgrade only if (like yours truly) you love the band enough to want to hear as many versions as possible of their material. If, on the other hand, you own only the original 1980 and 1981 albums—or for some crazy reason don’t even have those—the decision to buy these new editions should be easy.
Dion, Stomping Ground. Like Dion’s last album, 2020’s Blues with Friends, this new release finds the legendary rock singer sharing center stage with a long list of other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and Boz Scaggs, many of whom make memorable contributions. Once again, moreover, Dion focuses on blues-based songs, all but one of which he wrote or co-wrote (in most cases with frequent collaborator Mike Aquilina). The sole cover is a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” that features guitar work by Keb’ Mo’.
Now 82, Dion remains a powerful, assertive vocalist, and the album is loaded with high points, including the nostalgic “There Was a Time,” which boasts Peter Frampton on guitar; “That’s What the Doctor Said,” a tribute to Dr. John; and “I’ve Been Watching,” where he duets with Rickie Lee Jones. This listener does wish Dion would at least occasionally return to the sort of rock and doo-wop that he delivered as recently as 2000 on the terrific Deja Nu. Mostly, though, it’s good to know he’s still out there and singing.
Carole King & James Taylor, Live at the Troubadour. Carole King and James Taylor—longtime friends who loomed large in the 1970s singer/songwriter movement—had quite a year in 1971. Taylor topped charts with his version of King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and had a major hit LP with Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon; King released Tapestry, which employed some of the same musicians and became one of the bestselling albums of all time; and the two had a memorable shared engagement at L.A.’s Troubadour club.
Then, in 2007 they returned to that venue for a concert that marked the 50th anniversary of its opening and that featured the same stellar backup they employed at the club in 1971: Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums, and Leland Sklar on bass. The album that resulted from that show, which has just been reissued, features uniformly fine performances and a setlist loaded with fan favorites. Taylor contributes such numbers as “Carolina in My Mind,” “Something in the Way She Moves,” “Country Road,” “Fire and Rain,” and “Sweet Baby James” while King offers Tapestry’s “So Far Away,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and—from her Brill Building days with then-husband Gerry Goffin—“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow ” (which also appeared on Tapestry) and “Up on the Roof.”
David Duchovny, Gestureland. David Duchovny’s bid for Renaissance-man status appears to be succeeding: an actor who has picked up Golden Globes for The X Files and Californication, he has also released several bestselling novels as well as three CDs. Gestureland, the latest of those, is a passionate rocker that should appeal to fans of artists like Warren Zevon. The songs are consistently catchy and sound better with every listen, thanks at least partly to Duchovny’s talented band members, who employ piano, synthesizers, glockenspiel, violin, viola, cello, percussion, and clarinet, as well as electric, bass, and acoustic guitar.
Among the best of an excellent bunch: the introspective “Chapter and Verse”; “Nights Are Harder These Days,” which features blistering electric guitar; and “Layin’ on the Tracks,” the first single, which appears to reference the Trump era with lines about how “the crowds will gather in the poison rain to hear what they want, scream and cheer for what was once insane.”
Old No. 5s, Moment to Lose. These guys aren’t blazing any new trails, but their three guitarists know how to light a fire and keep it going. The sextet’s hook-filled, anthemic rock songs—all written or co-written by singer and multi-instrumentalist Brock Alexander—make you want to drop the convertible top and hit the highway with the music playing. On standouts like “Same Old You,” “Living Your Dream,” and “Two by Two,” the group’s sound mixes arena rock, Southern rock, and psychedelia. Take a tablespoon of Boston, add a teaspoon each of Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, mix well, and turn it up.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.