You'll hear a whole new Chrissie Hynde on her first-ever live acoustic album. Unlike the clichéd performances of MTV Unplugged, in which most artists simply turn down the volume without bothering to rethink a song's scope, Hynde's acoustic stint casts her music in a fresh light. Recorded in England last May, the show finds Hynde setting aside her usual don't-fuck-with-me rocker persona to assume the role of an early '70s-style confessional singer/songwriter: Joni Mitchell with a shag.
In a way it's a part Hynde was born to play. Since she has always written autobiographically, the intimacy of the new arrangements only make obvious her unusually personal points of view. A song like 1986's "Chill Factor" in which Hynde juts an accusing finger at ex's Ray Davies and Jim Kerr for leaving most of the child rearing to her never seemed more scathing.
To savor her lyrics and put a stamp on her melodies, Hynde slows her songs down. Tunes like "I Hurt You" or "The Phone Call," which earlier relied on surfing riffs, gain grace and authority taken at this gradual pace. On the more popleaning hit "Back on the Chain Gang," Hynde deflates the old buoyancy to concentrate on the song's sense of loss. Similarly, she transforms "Kid" from a swooning ballad to a reverent hymn.
An equal sense of formality informs the whole project, thanks to the ever-present string quartet. While a round of cellos and violas could easily have rendered Hynde's songs twee, they instead add an aching sense of restraint. Nearly every song recalls the prim beauty of the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By," exuding a gorgeously English sense of understatement. This clipped quality both mirrors Hynde's diffident character and contrasts with the sensual huffiness of her voice. Never has Hynde's singing sounded more wise or her songwriting more accomplished. Stripped of all amplification, Pretenders' music draws its electrical charge from an interior source. (RS 723)
(Posted: Dec 14, 1995)