The Pretenders took an unusual path back to relevance on Break Up the Concrete

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The Pretenders are admittedly a band I haven’t paid close attention to outside the first three albums, but that’s precisely why Break Up the Concrete was such a memorable experience.

No album since Learning to Crawl has really demanded my attention before Break Up the Concrete, released on October 7, 2008. And if it’s that compelling to me, then it would likely be a winner with any fan of the Pretenders, hard-core or casual.

Back in her native Ohio after spending all of her music career in the U.K., Chrissie Hynde left behind even original drummer Martin Chambers. Instead, she surrounded herself with a whole new crew headlined by the great Jim Keltner behind the kit, and included a pedal steel player as well in Eric Heywood.

The thing that makes the Pretenders’ Break Up the Concrete excel isn’t a return to the hard-driving punk days of original guitarist James Honeywell-Scott, but instead spirited rockabilly (“Boots of Chinese Plastic,” “Don’t Cut Your Hair”), countrified ballads (“The Nothing Maker,” “You Didn’t Have To”) and even Bo Diddly (the title track).

Chrissie Hynde’s tribute to her home state “Almost Perfect,” was the only track to clock in over four minutes long. While the guitars hint at Western swing, Keltner’s haunted accented pulse is lifted straight out of the Beatles’ “A Day In the Life.” The one cover, “Rosalee,” was rendered as a lazy blues-rocker. Hynde is the only woman who can pull off this tune convincingly. And she does, by a mile.

Even though the Pretenders’ Break Up the Concrete had more than its share of soft numbers, Hynde showed she’s lost none of her edge — even if that edge came from music that predates punk. (Heck, it mostly predated the the British Invasion.) Chrissie Hynde was back in America, and she brought some swagger back with her.

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