Chrissie Hynde is far from the first person one would think to record an album of jazz-tinged covers. But the Pretenders front woman and life-long rocker is but one more in an increasingly long line of performers entering their twilight years and exploring their more vocally nuanced sides. To her credit, she largely stays clear of the Great American Songbook on Valve Bone Woe, instead opting for material from sources as diverse as the Beach Boys, Nick Drake, John Coltrane and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Valve Bone Woe is a stab at vocal jazz, but with an often avant-garde twist, whether in the material selected or the studio trickery employed to take otherwise straightforward arrangements and place them just left of center enough to remain engaging. As opening track “How Glad I Am” reaches its climax and gently rises and falls into its natural fadeout, Hynde’s voice is suddenly skittering all over the speakers, heavily processed and refracting off of the otherwise dinner theatre-style horn charts.

It’s a sound and aesthetic that continues into “Caroline, No,” the effect moving from Hynde’s voice to the instrumentation, heavily processed and affected to an almost hallucinatory degree. In truth, it’s the track’s saving grace as, without the studio magic, Hynde’s read is fairly staid and bordering on lifeless. As it sits, however, its manufactured qualities make it one of the more successful experiments on an album full of them. Nearing the four-minute mark, things begin to bend and stretch, turning into a sort of dub-style remix rather than finishing what was started in any sort of traditional manner. It’s an interesting choice – one of many – that helps ensure Valve Bone Woe is nothing if not full of the unexpected.

Her read of Charles Mingus’ “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” takes the gist of the original composition from a melodic standpoint, distills it to its essence and allows the Valve Bone Woe Ensemble to run with it just long enough to make the listener wish the group had been granted a bit more freedom throughout (i.e. without Hynde’s voice shoehorned into the mix). Their read of Coltrane’s “Naima” takes a similar approach, allowing the original melody to gorgeously unfurl itself, gradually settling into a lush orchestration that, too, greatly benefits from Hynde’s absence.

Which isn’t entirely fair, given the fact that her name receives top-billing. But it does seem that these cuts in particular would’ve been better served on an accompanying album rather than smack-dab in the middle of Valve Bone Woe. Yet when Hynde and her band really gel, it’s truly remarkable. Her voice is perfectly suited to the heartbreak of Jobim’s “Once I Loved” and with the post-lounge arrangement, it’s a match made in space age bachelor pad music heaven.

She unfortunately takes this smoldering, emotive approach a step too far on Nick Drake’s “River Man,” drawing the syllables out with her trademark ballsy/breathy approach and allowing the melody to lazily unfold. Without the intricate arrangement behind her, the track would fall completely flat, losing all life before it even has a chance to get started. Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)” suffers a similar fate without the advantage of a solid arrangement to prop up Hynde’s occasional shortcomings as an interpreter.

While her voice is inimitable, it’s a relatively limited instrument that doesn’t afford her the range to emote in any more than a handful of tried and true ways. Because of this, much of Valve Bone Woe starts to sound the same in terms of Hynde’s read of the more familiar cuts. Regardless, it’s a noble experiment and one that will appeal to those familiar with Hynde’s work and not. This could well prove to be the start of a fruitful pairing that only improves with time. For now, Valve Bone Woe is a surprisingly pleasant listen, if lacking the full spectrum of vocal emotion needed to carry a whole program. Kudos to Hynde for stepping well beyond her comfort zone.

  • Chrissie Hynde: Stockholm

    [xrr rating=3.75/5]It’s kind of fitting that the best Pretenders album of the last decade …

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