Friday, June 9, 1995
The Guardian Features Page
AS the mature rock'n'roller tires of having eardrums blown to pieces and discovers the joys of an evening in front of the telly, so the "Unplugged" philosophy makes more and more sense. MTV's Unplugged series has been one of the marketing brainwaves of the decade, providing Eric Clapton with one of his biggestselling albums, provoking a reassessment of Rod Stewart and supplying Nirvana with a poignant sendoff.
"It's easy," said Chrissie Hynde, halfway through the second night's shooting of the Pretenders' own variation on the Unplugged theme. "When you start getting old, you just sit down." This Pretenders session, at London's Jacob Street Studios, wasn't an MTV event, and was billed merely as "a very special acoustic evening". In due course, it will emerge as an album from Warner Bros, with television transmissions to be negotiated.
This might prove to be one of Hynde's smartest moves. Her work with The Pretenders has always been sporadic, achieving moments of tingling pop excellence dropped in the middle of parched deserts of excruciating rock cliche.
How revealing, then, to see her accompanied by a string quartet, acoustic guitar, semiacoustic bass and percussion, with everdependable Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers twirling away with a pair of brushes. With no noisy electric bluster to paper over the cracks, all attention was focused on the songs, the arrangements, and most of all Hynde's voice.
She rose to the occasion with a display of cool professionalism which made you wonder why her workrate is so sluggish these days. Despite a few baffling choices of material, most of the songs benefited from their drastic rearrangement, with Sense Of Purpose providing a promisingly urgent opener, and Chambers dropping out for a hushed, tiptoeing version of Kid. Back On The Chain Gang, probably Hynde's best song, still sounded great, and the combo tweaked out a skeletal reggae framework for Private Life.
The bolder she got, the better Hynde sounded, massaging nuances from the songs in ways I can't ever remember her doing. Accompanied by a dishevelled Damon Albarn on piano, she made short work of I Go To Sleep. Best of the lot was Hymn To Her, where guitarist Adam Seymour plonked at a harmonium as Hynde rang the emotional changes. Resignation, elation, stoicism, and a fine display of her distinctive chinwobbling vibrato . . . not bad for just one song.
If Hynde chose to, she could show the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood a clean pair of bootheels in the "New American Music" sector. But all that wholesome cleancutness would probably make her throw up.
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