The Pretenders

God knows I'm not the only one who can't get past The Voice. That deep and rangy alto -- a near tenor at times -- has a way of dragging the music forward to match it. We forgive artistic trespasses and let ourselves be dazzled by indirect nostalgia. Since the late '70s, Chrissie Hynde's warbled croon has sounded credible and provocative no matter how insipid the lyrics, how trivial the chord progressions, how grim her bandmate situation. For the past decade, it seems she's managed to hang on to her musical reputation solely by the tenuous and tenacious threads of those vocal chords. Last of the Independents, released in 1994, may have dented her creative rut with a few new grooves, but as quickly and unexpectedly as that album invaded our consciousness, it evaporated into VH1 limbo.

On Hynde's latest outing, Viva El Amor!, the music finally does a respectable job of keeping up with The Voice. It doesn't quite possess the same razored ire and spitting energy of the band's self-titled 1980 debut, or even the wisdom and poppy sadness of 1984's Learning to Crawl, but this may be the best thing the veteran-mother-expatriate has put out in 15 years. As a whole, however, Viva is uneven; only the moments of clarity and rawness string it together into something truly listenable.

These touchstones are generous, based heavily on Hynde doing what she's always done best -- basic rock and roll and lovelorn balladry. The crunchy Telecaster attack of "Legalise Me," with a bridge that evokes the glory days of "Tattooed Love Boys" without ripping it off, is unmistakably Hynde, as is the retro-shimmy of "Popstar" and the poignant rolling grace of "Who's Who." Listening to the latter, you may wonder whether you've unearthed the bona fide essence of Hynde's gift -- goose-bump vibrato, sweetly layered harmonies, hypnotic guitar cycles that come off muscular but never dense. It sums up an entire career, new wave reinterpreted by a songwriter who broke it down and conquered it in the first place.

The occasional interruptions to this route can be irritating. On the rote-blues ballad "One More Time," Hynde repeatedly strains her voice beyond the shrill sky of first soprano, and you grit your teeth until she brings it back down to its natural territory. "Dragway 42" is a sludgy, over-orchestrated, minor-key road that goes nowhere fast, and the lyrics to "Popstar," rife with stabs at the new school of chick rockers, just graze "old and bitter." But when she hits the chorus to "Popstar" -- "They don't make 'em like they used to, baby" -- singing in that shrugging, sarcastic, powerful voice, you may just have to wonder whether she's right.

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Christina Rees