Like the Rolling Stones’ Stripped or Eddie Money’s Unplug It In, this seems to be an attempt to cash in on the Unplugged trend by a group who couldn’t get MTV to book them. Unlike some of those acts, however, the Pretenders’ music works pretty well in an acoustic format.
While much has been written over the years about Chrissie Hynde’s important contributions as lyricist and bandleader toward an role in rock music for independent women, it seems that not many people have remarked on what a great musician she is. First, she’s an amazing singer: with that unique Akron-meets-Hereford accent (it’s sometimes a little spooky listening to her, as she occasionally will pronounce a word exactly like my mother-in-law, also from northern Ohio) and lush, throaty delivery, she’s got a presence behind the mic that few rock singers have. She has a firm grasp of dynamics and melisma, too, so that without showboating, she always gets to the emotion behind a tune.
But she also knows her way around a guitar, which is why so many of these tunes work unplugged. She’s never relied on overdriven chords to power her songs; instead, she builds layered chord progressions full of interesting modulations and works her melodies out over a large range usually about an octave and a half that sets them apart from the usual run of pop-rockers.
What’s especially impressive about The Isle of View, recorded with her ‘90s incarnation of the Pretenders, is the evidence of a continuing artistic vision. While other, arguably greater, talents (think Paul McCartney) reduced their Unplugged sessions to run-throughs of their greatest acoustic hits, Hynde omits a number of top-sellers and draws from throughout her catalog even the flop (although by no means uninteresting) album Packed and showcases album tracks that she finds worthy alongside classics like “Brass in Pocket.”
To be fair, not everything works this way. “Hymn to Her” is reduced to simple harmonium accompaniment, suggesting an actual hymn, but one misses the gentle rhythm section of the original. “I Go to Sleep”, never one of their better numbers, is sped up to increase interest, but the bare piano arrangement lacks gravitas. “Brass in Pocket” owes a lot to its spare Motown beat, which is covered up in the acoustic strumming.
Otherwise, the acoustic format, with additional string quartet, provides a number of revelations. The best are “I Hurt You”, with tremelo “stings” in the verse providing a spooky commentary, and “The Phone Call”, with strident acoustic strumming replacing the tinny electric guitar parts to suggest a backporch stomp (but when the strings glissando in an otherworldly replacement of James Honeyman-Scott’s original guitar effects, it becomes an unclassifiable treat.) “Lovers of Today” is almost orchestral in the power provided when the strings suddenly enter the first chorus, and the soaring lines they play above the verses showcase Hynde’s voice with a sympathetic harmony.
The Isle of View may not be the first place to go for Pretenders music (try The Singles for a great collection) but it’s much better than its bandwagon-hopping origins suggest.
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