Monday , May 20 2024
the Pretenders -Relentless

Music Reviews: The Pretenders’ ‘Relentless,’ plus Wild Rabbit Salad, Crowes Pasture, Torben Westergaard, and Johnny Rawls

Relentless is the first new Pretenders album in three years, following 2020’s Hate for Sale, and it’s just the fifth collection of fresh material from the group to arrive in this century. That’s a bit misleading, though, since Pretenders prime mover Chrissie Hynde has also released three ostensible solo CDs over that period, most recently 2021’s criminally underappreciated Standing in the Doorway, a sublime collection of Bob Dylan covers. Moreover, Pretenders releases are all really Hynde CDs and vice versa, since albums credited either way have always been dominated by her material and performed by her and whichever musicians she chose to work with at the time.

For Relentless, the 12th album issued under the group’s name, the now-septuagenarian singer opted to partner with only one of the people who helped her make Hate for Sale: James Walbourne, her lead guitarist since 2008. Like that earlier album, the new one finds him co-authoring all the material with Hynde; he also plays multiple instruments, including mellotron, assorted other keyboards, and guitar.  

Stephen Street, who produced Hate for Sale as well as 1999’s ¡Viva El Amor!, has been supplanted in that role by Welch musician and songwriter David Wrench, who also plays various instruments on several tracks. Drummer Martin Chambers, who has frequently performed in the Pretenders since its founding in 1978 and appeared on Hate for Sale, is replaced on Relentless by Kris Sonne. Gone, too, is bassist Nick Wilkinson, whose instrument is played here by Chris Hill and, on two tracks, by Dave Page. The new album additionally features multi-instrumentalist Carwyn Ellis, who did not appear on the last Pretenders CD but first toured with the group in 2012. 

All these changes notwithstanding, there are no musical U-turns on Relentless. So long as Chrissie Hynde remains in control, it seems, Pretenders albums will likely retain the same distinctive sound, which employs abundant hooks; strong melodies; muscular, garage-rock influenced instrumentation; and most importantly, Hynde’s authoritative, instantly recognizable vocals.

Relentless opens with “Losing My Sense of Taste,” a title that seems Covid-inspired until you hear the lyrics, which turn out to concern aesthetic discernment and seem autobiographical. “I don’t even care about rock and roll,” Hynde sings. “All my old favorites seem tired and old / My whole collection now feels like a waste / I’m losing my sense of taste.” Maybe she was just having a bad day when she wrote that because Relentless sounds like the work of someone who still loves rock and has terrific taste in music.

The opening track isn’t the only one that appears to be the work of someone who is having a tough day, however. In “A Love,” Hynde sings, “I’m afraid, afraid every day,” for example, while “Merry Widow” finds her confiding, “I had a love, but jealousy, vanity meant that love could never be.” In “I Think about You Daily,” which features a string arrangement by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, she confesses, “It only makes me sad, things that got away / I treated you real bad.” And in “Look Away,” she sings: “I think sometimes I’d been better off been born blind / Then I wouldn’t have these dark images run through my mind.”

The album is not as melancholy as such lyrics might suggest, however, because the music—a well-balanced mix of punchy rockers and lilting ballads—keeps the proceedings upbeat. “Let the Sun Come In,” the album’s first single and “A Love” are almost as catchy as the group’s 1982 classic, “Back on the Chain Gang,” while the dreamy “The Copa” features the sort of acoustic guitar you might find on a Chris Isaak album. Throughout, you’ll hear nothing to diminish Hynde’s reputation as one of rock’s greatest and most emotive vocalists.

Also Noteworthy

Wild Rabbit Salad--Postcard from Houston

Wild Rabbit SaladPostcard from HoustonThis fifth album from Houston-based Wild Rabbit Salad—an Americana duo consisting of Bucky Goldberg and Marietta Roebuck—is arguably even better than its most recent predecessor, 2020’s Trouble in Town. Like that record, the new one is a little uneven, but the best tracks combine smart lyrics with impressive instrumentation and indelible melodies. That both Goldberg and Roebuck are first-rate singers doesn’t hurt. High points include “Wandering Heart,” where Marietta’s vocals are on par with Emmylou Harris’s, the Western swing–influenced title cut, and the playful, party-ready “It’s Saturday Night Til the Sun Comes Up.”

Crowes Pasture--Don't Blink

Crowes PastureDon’t BlinkThis is the fourth full-length album from Crowes Pasture, a husband-and-wife duo featuring banjo player Monique Byrne and guitarist Andy Rogovin. His tenor and her soprano blend beautifully on the album’s eight pensive original tunes. Most of them concern subjects like aging and romance, but “Take Back the Red White and Blue,” which features guest Robin Batteau on violin, effectively addresses the 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C. Also featured are two well-done covers about love relationships, the melancholy “The Night We Met” and Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind.” 

Torben Westergaard - The Gori Project II

Torben WestergaardThe Gori Project IIDanish bassist and keyboardist Torben Westergaard shines on this mostly instrumental set—his second Gori Project release this year—which is billed as “a cultural exchange between Scandinavian jazz and South Korean folk music. Westergaard, who wrote or co-wrote nearly everything here, shares center stage with three other musicians: Marilyn Mazur, who plays percussion; Rene Damsbak, who adds trumpet, flugelhorn, synths, and electronics; and Hyelim Kim, who plays daegeum, a bamboo flute used in traditional Korean folk music. The consistently inventive and mesmerizing program adds up to one of the best world music projects since the albums of the late, great Oregon.

Johnny Rawls--Walking Heart Attack

Johnny RawlsWalking Heart AttackSinger, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Rawls delivers soulful vocals on this self-produced latest album, which features a high-octane brass section (saxes, trumpet, trombone) and two female backup singers. The 10-track setlist includes six numbers written by Rawls and / or his bassist Bob Trenchard, among them Trenchard’s sweet “Mississippi Dreams,” an ode to Rawls’s native state. Covers include Eugene Williams’s “Trying to Live My Life Without You” (the Otis Clay classic), and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”

Rawls’s work conjures up some of the 1960s’ best soul artists and, in fact, has links to many of them: he has recorded with Clay, for example, and has backed such artists as Joe Tex and Little Johnny Taylor. He was also band director and guitarist for O.V. Wright, whose “Born All Over” appears here.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's 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.

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