The temptation to dismiss Chrissie Hynde’s new album Valve Bone Woe as aging rockstar populist folly might be tempting. But I would beseech you not to, at least not yet, no matter how the rocky (rockers?) road to hell may be littered with many a late career jazz diversion of dubious content, however lucrative. (As in, please don’t sing it again, Rod.) This is more in the territory of a respectful nod to another genre, rather than any bandwagoneering, and is perhaps a brave choice for Hynde, if certainly unexpected. Plus, this album comes at a time when her day job is far from faltering, the Pretenders currently riding a prolonged late summer of renewed acclaim. So what has she got to prove?
With the choice of songs spread wide across the broad canvas of quite what might count as jazz, indeed, spilling over to distinctly non-jazz numbers like “Caroline, No” and Nick Drake’s “River Man,” there feels sometimes a hint of over-ambition, but the record remains a cohesive statement (sometimes only just), rather than a rag-bag compendium. This is is no small part down to the Valve Bone Woe Ensemble, who provide the backing, a luxurious drenching of strings and brass gilding the more conventional core, which hinges on the expected piano, horns, muted guitars, (string) bass and drums of any ’50s style quintet or sextet. None of my detailed searches could produce any names or faces to the musicians, but it smacks of the same individuals across the whole, conjuring up comparisons with, say, the Metropole Orkest, particularly their outings with Elvis Costello.
Less satisfactorily, forays into electronic noise and dub also appear, perhaps to give some unnecessary slash of modernity. I hesitate to blame this on the producer, Marius de Vries, producer of Madonna’s Ray of Light, of the Moulin Rouge film soundtrack, and the more orchestral stylizations of Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson, but to this I will return.
But what of Hynde’s voice, that fabled cracked vessel, lyrics half-swallowed in her trademark gulp? Well, the girl can sing and can sing very well, against my jaundiced expectations. Sure, she is perfect for the Pretenders, but the songs here often have rather more challenging melodies. Hynde addresses them well, retaining just enough of her usual vocal tricks so as not to forget it is she, and whilst she is no Ella, she does a pretty fine composite of, really, Norah Jones and Sarah Vaughan. Notes are held and fit the arrangements, with little sense of Hynde’s ever being out of her depth.
Valve Bone Woe starts with totally the wrong track. “How Glad I Am” is the nearest thing to a loungecore croon on the record, and will, arguably, put off the browsing listener. (I wonder if my stance on the album would be less supportive if my first listening hadn’t been in reverse order.) So skip that one, and move straight on to the second, the initially glorious take on Brian Wilson’s “Caroline No.” Widely pre-released as a taster earlier in the year, I had forgotten quite how dubby this version progressively becomes. The arrangement is sublime, and I am uncertain of the gain and sure of the loss given by the ever more reverbed and echoed drums, until it near dissolves in a clatter. I’d love to hear it unenhanced.
Tracks 3 and 4 suddenly and dramatically up the ante: swooningly blissful renditions of “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” perhaps the songs of Hynde’s childhood that she says were the inspiration for this exercise. A particular shout for the aching trumpet solo in “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Plus, no lover of choirs me, but suddenly I see where Danger Mouse is coming from in so many of his lush productions for Michael Kiwanuka, Karen O and others.
Enough of ballads for the moment; we’re off into instrumental territory. It’s “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” by Charles Mingus, reminiscent, no less, of early instrumental Zappa, sounding like an guitar-free outtake from Hot Rats. That itch scratched, it is back to the songbook, and Hynde is still floating. It’s true that her version of “Wild is the Wind” owes more to David Bowie than to Nina Simone apropos her delivery, but it it is another highlight, wedged between two more standards that show off her never previously explored lower register.
A change of direction heralds “River Man,” a Nick Drake song much covered. I wondered how it would stack up against that of Lucinda Williams, another woman striking a positive chord for the older female artiste, and the answer is very well. Very different, but very well. The Barbara Streisand track “Absent Minded Me” begins eventually to over-egg the saccharine, before, two-thirds through, suddenly taking a steep sideways turn into a reggae skank, this time working completely, if counter-intuitively.
This, unfortunately, seems to herald the end of the success of Valve Bone Woe. The near-instrumental take on John Coltrane’s “Naima,” with a clear and hefty nod to the Santana/Mclaughlin version, is marred by background conversation, as if bleeding in from a radio somewhere nearby. Without that, it would have approached magical. “Hello, Young Lovers” comes across as a slightly cheesy hotel lobby song; “No Return,” astonishingly and unrecognizably coming from the pen of Hynde’s ex-husband Ray Davies of the Kinks, is wracked/wrecked with a kitchen sink of effects. The album closer, “Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours,” could have and by all rights should have been consummate, and it does start as such. But for no reason I can quite imagine, spoken voices break in, one almost certainly Hynde, holding some faux French b-movie dialogue that completely sours the moment.
Overall, Valve Bone Woe is a good album. Certainly flawed and probably too long, maybe improved if some of the earlier and later tracks were ditched, or at least returned to their previous pre-post-production sheen. Hynde has played a couple of concerts in the live setting, and more are planned. That I would like to see, also wondering if any of the songs might take a bow in any Pretenders show, stripped down to guitar band basics, yet retaining the newly discovered extra nuances of her voice.
Tracklisting, with best known first versions attributed:
- How Glad I Am (Nancy Wilson cover)
- Caroline, No (Beach Boys cover)
- I’m a Fool to Want You (Frank Sinatra cover)
- I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) (Hoagy Carmichael cover)
- Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters (Charles Mingus)
- Once I Loved (Astrud Gilberto cover)
- Wild Is the Wind (Nina Simone cover)
- You Don’t Know What Love Is (Chet Baker cover)
- River Man (Nick Drake cover)
- Absent Minded Me (Barbra Streisand cover)
- Naima (John Coltrane cover)
- Hello, Young Lovers (Deborah Kerr cover)
- No Return (Kinks cover)
- Que reste-t-il de nos amours ? (Charles Trenet cover)