Pretenders II

The Pretenders

Sire, 1981

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Possibly the only thing more challenging for a young band than a sophomore album is a sophomore album whose predecessor debut knocked the entire world back on its heels. The pressure to duplicate that success is huge. But do you stick to form and try to ride that same musical wave all the way to the shallows, or do you turn out of it in search of something new?

Sometimes you hedge your bets and do a little of both, which means you haven’t fully committed to either, which can leave the end result feeling unfocused, possibly even a bit forced in places.

Welcome to Pretenders II, in which the world-beating quartet of Chrissie Hynde (lead vocals, guitar), James Honeyman Scott (lead guitar, keys, vocals), Pete Farndon (bass, vocals) and Martin Chambers (drums, vocals) attempts to fill the gigantic shoes of their classic 1980 debut Pretenders. That instantly memorable album, a showcase for both Hynde’s New Wave-meets-British Invasion songwriting and the musical fireworks generated by Scott’s furiously inventive lead guitar and the hard-hitting Farndon-Chambers rhythm section, also highlighted their versatility as the group shifted gears repeatedly between punky aggression and gentler melodic rock.

Ironically, on the band’s second album it’s the tunes where it seems like they’re trying hardest to live up to their own smashing debut that feel like the weakest links; it’s as if the furious live-wire energy that lit up Pretenders cuts like “Precious” and “The Phone Call” had left them spent. Their initial attempts to recreate it with opening cuts “The Adultress” and “Bad Boys Get Spanked” achieve only modest results; the former features chunky, menacing chords and a charismatic lead vocal from Hynde, but feels awkward and a step slow until the closing jam, while the latter tries too hard and ends up feeling as out of sync and over the top as the off-kilter scream Hynde lets out at 1:33. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

After that bumpy start, they locate the magic again with the brilliant “Message Of Love,” Chambers driving the bus hard as Scott and Farndon deliver exclamation points on top and Hynde turns out nuggets of hard-earned wisdom at the mic. By the time she paraphrases Oscar Wilde (“We are all of us in the gutter / But some of us are looking at the stars”), you’re either singing along or unconscious. “Talk Of The Town” is the other highlight here, featuring Scott’s gorgeous jangly lead guitar and one of Hynde’s finest lead vocal performances, every detail perfect from the way her vibrato extends the word “town” in the chorus to the bottomless longing she invests in “I want you” at the close.

In between, they throw in another Kinks cover (“I Go To Sleep”) that feels like a bald attempt to repeat the group’s first-album success with “Stop Your Sobbing.” It’s pleasantly soft and dreamy, and did well in the charts, but the addition of horns and strings actually feels like a subtraction from the band’s unique sound here. Highlights from the second half include a trio of smart, edgy rockers in “Pack It Up,” “Day After Day” and the closing, early British Invasion-flavored “Louie Louie.”

The remainder of the album is fair to middling but a definite step down from Pretenders, where every track feels essential. “Birds Of Paradise” shimmers along without generating much heat, as does “Waste Not Want Not,” which at least benefits from interesting, intricate Scott / Farndon interplay. “Jealous Dogs” ramps up the tempo while featuring creative lead guitar from Scott, but is saddled with a pedestrian lyric. “The English Roses” is a chiming, classic-rock flavored number that’s pleasant enough but ends up feeling rather aimless.

Where Pretenders felt like a band a hundred percent on the same page, all pulling—and pulling hard—in the same direction, on Pretenders II they locate that common groove only intermittently. In reality, the band had been on the record-promote-tour treadmill for two-plus years by this point, their lives spinning steadily out of control. The results weren’t pretty; first Farndon was dismissed after becoming too strung out to perform; then Scott died of a drug overdose two days later, at age 25. Farndon would meet the same sad end the following year.

When you get down to it, the biggest strike Pretenders II has against it is that it isn’t Pretenders, which is of course patently unfair. As evidenced here, the group’s founding lineup contained so much raw talent that even when the songs don’t quite click, they still brim with charisma and melodic flair. The higher the bar has been set, the harder it is to clear it, and while the Pretenders surely set themselves an impossible task following up their debut, Pretenders II has its moments and leaves you wondering what might have been.

Rating: B+

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