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Music Review: The Pretenders – Learning To Crawl and Get Close

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"I'm not the cat I used to be/I got a kid, I'm 33," declares Chrissie Hynde on "Middle Of The Road," the opening cut of Learning To Crawl, The Pretenders' third full-length album. Learning To Crawl has recently been reissued on Rhino complete with bonus tracks, as has the follow-up, Get Close.

Following the drug-related deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon (who had been kicked out two days before Honeyman-Scott's overdose) Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers decided to continue on as a band as a tribute to their fallen bandmates rather than go solo. They found replacements in Robbie McIntosh and Malcolm Foster, and Learning To Crawl became the band's most successful album, reaching #5 on the Billboard Albums Chart and placing three singles in the Top 30.

It's not hard to hear why. Outside of their 1980 self-titled debut, The Pretenders have never rocked harder, and Hynde's songs display the courage of a woman bravely trying to carry on in the wake of her friends' deaths. On guitar, McIntosh doesn't try to imitate Honeyman-Scott, but his playing contains the same flashy cool that made songs like "Kid" and "Talk Of The Town" instant classics.

In addition to "Middle Of The Road," there are also classic rock radio staples like "Back On The Chain Gang," "My City Was Gone," and "Show Me." As on nearly every Pretenders album, there's a killer cover (The Persuaders' soul smash "Thin Line Between Love And Hate"). And everybody's Christmas playlist should include "2000 Miles."

Chambers left The Pretenders before the recording of the next album, 1986's Get Close. Although McIntosh remained, the move further gave Hynde the opportunity to remake the band in her own image, using outside musicians to an even greater extent than on Learning To Crawl, including bassist Chucho Merchan, drummer Simon Phillips, and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell. As a result, Get Close plays out more like a Chrissie Hynde solo album than anything The Pretenders had recorded to that point.

Following the success of "Back On The Chain Gang" and "Show Me" on Learning To Crawl, Hynde moves into more melodic territory. This move away from the aggressively sexual persona of her earlier work isn't necessarily a bad one, and the best songs, "Chill Factor," "Hymn To Her," and the hit single "Don't Get Me Wrong" reflect Hynde's desire to have it all — a rock n' roll career and a family — while at the same time allowing herself to be swept off her feet by a new fling (Hynde had recently married Jim Kerr of Simple Minds).

But for the most part, Hynde's songwriting is largely uninspired, and the slick production amplifies rather than hides its deficiencies. "Light Of The Moon" and "Dance" are soulless attempts at contemporary R&B, and "How Much Did You Get For Your Soul?" is an easy swipe at rock stars selling out to advertisers (how quaint that sounds today).

Get Close isn't the worst Pretenders album – that distinction belongs to 1990's Packed, which lacked anything as wonderfully catchy as "Don't Get Me Wrong" – but it was clear that the Hynde-plus-studio-pros approach didn't work.  Thankfully, Chambers, and Hynde's songwriting focus, returned for 1994's Last Of The Independents.

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About Dave Lifton