Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Pretenders' Debut Album - Kind Of Annoying; Kind Of Growing On Me?

I heard the Pretenders' debut album years ago and I didn't like it very much. It was hard to put my finger on it. I found Chrissie Hynde's voice kind of affected and irritating; she often did these quasi-sexy moans and sighs that rubbed me the wrong way, like she really, really wanted me know how much of a tough, sultry rocker babe with a leather jacket she was. Even the poses on the album cover annoyed me. Mostly I felt like Chrissie Hynde and I wouldn't really have had anything in common. She seemed like the kind of person who was really confident and comfortable with herself. I mean, that's great, but it didn't mean I wanted to listen to her music. I didn't get the sense that Hynde was really struggling with anything. You know what the Pretenders were? They were music for guys with girlfriends.

Not everyone felt the way I did. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, for example, loves this album:
Few rock & roll records rock as hard or with as much originality as the Pretenders' eponymous debut album. A sleek, stylish fusion of Stonesy rock & roll, new wave pop, and pure punk aggression, Pretenders is teeming with sharp hooks and a viciously cool attitude ... Pretenders moves faster and harder than most rock records, delivering an endless series of melodies, hooks, and infectious rhythms in its 12 songs.
Well sure, I guess so, except ... the songs aren't really about anything! Chrissie Hynde had been a rock journalist before forming her own band, and I think it kind of shows. She had the style, but maybe not the substance.

I'll say one thing, at least: the album should not be judged by its biggest hit. "Brass in Pocket," became the first UK #1 hit of the '80s, and also peaked at #14 in the U.S. It is also a candidate for MOST ANNOYING SONG OF ALL TIME.


Gonna use my arms
Gonna use my legs
Gonna use my style
Gonna use my sidestep
Gonna use my fingers
Gonna use my, my, my imagination

'Cause I gonna make you see
There's nobody else here
No one like me
I'm special, so special
I gotta have some of your attention
Give it to me
How does "Brass in Pocket" annoy me? Let me count the ways. 1) The riff reminds me of some other song that uses the same riff, but I can't for the life of me name which song, which annoys me (Edit: I think it's Argent's "Hold Your Head Up"); 2) "Brass" in pocket? What the fuck does that mean? According to Wikipedia, "The song takes its title from an expression Hynde heard from a member of Strangeways, a Yorkshire-based support band, who was looking for his money ("brass", meaning money)." All I get is a picture in my mind of somebody with a miniature tuba in the back of his jeans. 3) Hynde's already irritating singing may be at its most pronounced here. The phrase "gonna make you notice" becomes something more like "guuu mek-yu, mek-yu noh-tehh!" Damn right, you made me notice. You made me notice how annoying your singing is. And the backing vocalists: "Spe-cial!" It's like they walked in from a toothpaste jingle. And why are you special anyway? Look, even Chrissie Hynde didn't like the song very much: "I was embarrassed by it. I hated it so much that if I was in Woolworth's and they started playing it, I'd have to run out of the store." It may have been a big hit, but it's probably my least favorite song on the album.

See, I think the rock critic in me likes this album, but the actual listener in me thinks it's kind of blah. The opening track, "Precious," is a good example of what I mean. It's like a lot of strong elements that don't precisely gel.


I was feeling kind of ethereal 'cause I'm precious
I had my eye on your Imperial you're so precious
Now Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed
Trapped in a world that they never made
But not me baby I'm too precious I had to fuck off
Ooh, Chrissie, you're cool! You just said "fuck off" in a song! I wish I cared. I like the idea of a punk/new wave cover of "Stop Your Sobbing," a great and somewhat obscure early Kinks song (Hynde was romantically involved with Ray Davies at the time), but I'm not sure the Pretenders quite pulled it off. It's too jangly. It sounds like a Tom Petty b-side. "Private Life" is a six minute quasi- reggae jam that sounds like it wouldn't have made the cut for the fifth side of Sandinista! (which, if you know Sandinista!, is not a compliment).

If anything, my favorite songs on the album might actually be the last two.  "Lovers of Today" has a slow, creepy, grinding quality, which is complemented by some heavy guitar playing that sounds to these ears like vintage Wall-era David Gilmour. Hello, is there anybody in there? Taking a nap? OK, cool, I'll come back later.



But the Pretenders may have saved the best for last with "Mystery Achievement." Before I ever heard this album, I once heard "Mystery Achievement" on classic rock radio, and I thought the song was pretty good, and it made me wonder if the album was going to be better than I thought it would be. When I finally heard the album I realized, "No, that just happened to be the best song, even if it's not the most well-known." As with most of the songs on Pretenders, I have no idea what it's about, but for once, I don't actually care. I'm too busy tapping my feet to the "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" drum beat and swaying to the funky bass line. Starting around 3:15, the band even works up a terrific guitar jam that justifies its length with its awesomeness. Did the Pretenders just pull a Duran Duran/"The Chauffeur" on me? I think they did.


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