Get Close (Remastered)
2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The Pretenders previous LP “Learning To Crawl” re-established the group as a polished act. Original members Chrissie Hynde and Martin Chambers, abetted by the supremely talented guitarist Robbie McIntosh and invisible bassist Malcolm Foster, crafted a pleasantly adult album minus the original group’s posturing punk – turning out a Pretenders coming of age milestone. It looked like the group had the right personnel in place to produce best selling albums for years to come.
So what happened? Success bred contempt. The second edition of The Pretenders imploded almost as quickly as it had been assembled. Rather than build on her band’s comeback success, Hynde decided to treat The Pretenders like Tobacco Road – blow it up and start all over again. The restless Hynde thought a more R & B sound was in order. Why a rebellious punk matron from the mid-west thought she could pull this sort of unwelcome change is another matter. The upgrade meant the tempo challenged team of Chambers and Foster either had to hit the rhythmic pocket or hit the road. Foster opted for another gig and Chambers, still reeling from the OD’s of original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, made it easy on Hynde by taking a much needed sabbatical, leaving Hynde as the great Pretender.
Answering Hynde’s call to funkytown were veteran keyboardist Bernie Worrell (Jack Bruce Band, Parliament Funkadelic and The Talking Heads), cross-genre hopping bassist T.M Stevens (James Brown, Miles Davis and The Mahavishnu Orchestra) and sledge- hammering drummer Blair Cunningham (didn’t he play for the New York Jets? No, but his older brother played drums for Otis Redding and died with him when Redding’s plane crashed.) Guest musicians who lent a hand to the group’s new sound included David Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar, Paul McCartney keyboard wiz Wix, and experienced stick men Mel Gaynor and Simon Phillips.
“My Baby” starts off with a chirpy acoustic guitar. Mid-tempo and safe, with Worrell streaking across the arrangement like a sunspot on synthesizer and providing a percussive piano, Hynde doesn’t push her vocal. The often annoying quiver in her voice is gone, replaced by a breathy, deeper vocal that fits her range. Sadly, Simple Minds’ drummer Mel Gaynor, the powerhouse behind “Alive and Kicking,” plods along, but “My Baby” is an admirable radio-ready rocker.
“When I Change My Life” was assayed with a brain dead tempo as a bonus track on “Learning to Crawl.” Propped up by Phillips’ quasi-reggae beat, Wix’s sunny keyboards and a more involved vocal by Hynde, it’s transformed from a mopey ballad to positive pop. Wix’s addition of an ARP synth is a little out of date, but does provide a pleasant background.
“Light of the Moon” is lit up by Stevens’ finger-bending bass and the first brief signs of life from guitarist Robbie McIntosh, who donates a quick outta space lick. Cunningham plays like a drill press in need of an oiling, but is covered by Stevens’ bass and Worrell’s expansive keys.
The rhythm designed to get your feet moving in “Dance” is provided by McIntosh’s wocca-wocca guitar work and a Bo Diddley rumble by Stevens and second bassist Chucho Merchan. (Wait a minute. It takes two bassists to sound like one?) Devoid of any meaningful lyrical content, it’s up to McIntosh to slash away at the jungle beat supplied by the two-headed bassist. “Dance like a chimpanzee…bow wow…dance in the land of the free.” Even ignoring that chimps don’t bark, this is an out-of-touch mess. McIntosh is motivated, but the rest of the band is stuck in boogaloo boredom.
“Tradition of Love” is a Middle Eastern transcendental opus, with an echoed Hynde wailing like an Egyptian princess about to be sealed in her tomb. Guest drummer Simon Phillips at least knows how to double up on the beat. McIntosh gets a little Jimmy Pagey, bending out long chords in response to guest violinist Shankar’s stratospheric musings. It’s a change of pace that bucks The Pretenders traditional bad-girl image.
The chugging single “Don’t Get Me Wrong” just barely squeezed into the U.S. top ten. Drummer Steve Jordan paces and races the beat, with the duo of Merchan and Stevens one-note thumping on their respective basses. McIntosh’s unadorned guitar is a bit of a yawn, but this is all about Hynde, who is guarded in her optimism: “Don’t get me wrong, if I come and go like fashion. I might be great tomorrow, but hopeless yesterday.”
Bernie Worrell’s keyboards supply “I Remember You” with Stax appeal, alternating between Booker T’s Memphis Hammond-infused sound and upbeat, wafting synths.
It’s one of those short, simplistic songs that’s likely to leave an actual impression with repeated listenings.
Hynde puts herself in a James Brown jam in “How Much Did You Get For Your Soul.” Stevens pumps, Cunningham hacks as woodenly as the departed Chambers and Worrell taps at his keys. “Soul” draws on Worrell’s Funkadelic experience and it’s a clamoring bust. Hynde ain’t James Brown and has as much soul as James Polk. McIntosh is left with the particularly embarrassing task of fabricating a rhythm even Prince would reject. It’s obvious someone didn’t pay these guys enough to buy their souls – or “soul.”
“Chill Factor” is another stab at R & B with hints of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Needs a Woman.” Hynde tries to testify, but is done in by Cunningham, who freezes at the mid-point, jerking about as if he’s having a stroke. If he was lucky, he was. This chill could have heated up if the band had rehearsed it more before turning on the record button.
In “Hymn To Her” Hynde finally abandons her urge to be Martha Reeves and sets her sights on a more sensible and suitable target. Her voice loses its nasal menace, projecting a steadier tone Hynde should use more often. McIntosh is more comfortable in this soft rock element, and Phillips ability to provide a multi-layered backtrack gives the song a welcome bounce as it progresses. After two hatchet-job stabs at R & B, “Hymn to Her” sounds like one of the best recordings Hynde has ever made. It’s not, but it’s still a highlight on what’s proving to be an album full of bold departures – and failures.
Hynde has long been death to covers, and she continues her streak unabated by ruining Jimi Hendrix’s “Room Full of Mirrors.” The attraction in the song was never the vocals, so Hynde is forced to throw in so many yeah, yeah, yeahs you’ll think the CDs defective, and in this particular case it is. A pre-sabbaticaled Martin Chambers falls behind, leaving guest keyboard Robert Black a lot of room to lie across the black and whites. A travesty, “Room Full of Mirrors” is worth a cursory pass only for McIntosh’s exceptional and high-flying guitar work.
Get Closer to the Bonus Tracks
Unlike the tracks on the original album, McIntosh is allowed to roam free on “Hold A Candle Like This,” playing both hard and melodic within a few bars. Hynde is back in a wiseacre punk princess zone and Cunningham puts some zip in his sticks. “Bring on the ecstasy and the bliss,” says Hynde, and the band follows blithely, sounding less pressured and eager to impress than on the rest of the album. Light this candle a few times and listen to a band enjoying each other’s company.
“World Within Worlds” sounds a bit too much like the previous track, only with a more flattened, muddy production. Abrupt time signature changes have become atypical to Hynde’s later compositions and they don’t help. There’s also a swirling, spiraling guitar effect by McIntosh that is so out of place it’s laughable, and will give you that same squirrelly feeling you get in the pit of your gut just before you chuck chow. McIntosh also throws in an effect that sounds like a formula one racer stuck in fourth gear as it speeds by. This crazy world can’t come to a crashing end soon enough.
The remix of “Tradition of Love” allows you to make out Hynde’s Vishnu vocal more easily, and Shankar’s dervish violin is more detectable, but the guts of the song, the bass and the drums, are thinner. The first take of “Dance” has more cujones than the final mix and is more in line with Hynde’s tough-girl image, more rock than the frivolous mutation of R & B and disco that it became. They should have gone with take numero uno, which is highlighted by Hynde’s brief lung-clearing harp. I hated this before and it’s still too long, but this one sounds like The Pretenders rather than a pretender.
The reissue includes a live recording of “Don’t Get Me Wrong” recorded in Austin Texas. Because there’s little for Worrell to do except plunk at the same chords while McIntosh is stuck riffing, Cunningham’s repetitive beat gets to be a real migraine inducer. Hynde handles the vocal well though with more passion than the original, and McIntosh fires off a savvy song saving solo.
Since she was “Deep in the heart of Texas,” when it was recorded, Hynde dusts off “Thumbelina,” her tribute to rockabilly/country western. The live version is a vast improvement over the turgid studio version thanks to McIntosh’s revving up his guitar like a runaway branded steer, but it’s still all thumbs, a clumsy interpretation of a genre that Hynde can never hope to master (ditto for her dip into R &B).
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Chrissie refused to mine the group’s more sedate (and more adult) sound, opting instead to “get close” to her to her fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants punk past. She whiffed big time. Even the more memorable songs on “Get Close,” “My Baby,” “Tradition of Love,” “Hymn To Her,” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” are only marginally good. Robbie McIntosh, a formidable player, is stifled and all the impressive pedigrees of the other players can’t hide – or Hynde—that Chrissie’s decision to hop on board the soul train derailed the band’s momentum, sending them on the fast track to the oldies circuit. Don’t get me wrong – The Pretenders have created some classic material, but none of its on this CD, so get as far away from “Get Close” as you can. Learn how to crawl instead.