LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde is unleashing her inner cowgirl on the rock band's first new album in five years.
But her label does not want "Break Up the Concrete" (Shangri-La Music; October 7) to be described as a country effort because of negative connotations. Call it rockabilly, invoke comparisons with Bo Diddley or Sun Records, and luxuriate in the pedal steel guitar. Just don't say that she has gone Nashville.
In truth, Hynde has gone Akron: Akron, Ohio, the faded rust-belt city where she was born 57 years ago, and from which she fled to her adopted hometown of London in 1973.
Since forming the Pretenders in 1978, Hynde occasionally sang about her birthplace -- most notably in the eulogy "My City Was Gone" -- but for the most part she spent her career keeping the English punk rock spirit alive.
In recent years, however, Hynde has been spending quality time with her family in Akron. She strolls the streets and meditates in the cemetery. She has also been recalling the home-grown music she eschewed as a kid in favor of exotic English sounds.
"This was something that I really felt I was being becoming pulled toward and attracted to, this more American sound which I had never explored before," Hynde said in a recent interview with Reuters.
"All the English guys love that s---, but I kinda rejected it all my life because it was my own sound. I think I probably have, as a singer, more of an inherent country voice than I would ever like to imagine I did. I think I was in denial."
And thus was born "Break Up the Concrete," only the ninth Pretenders studio album, and the band's first release since 2003's reggae-tinged "Loose Screw," which failed to chart in the United States. The Pretenders have not really troubled the charts since the 1994 album "Last of the Independents."
"It's not any competition for me," Hynde said of her sporadic output. "My life is my life, and I like to have my privacy and live my life. What I give the public, they've already had enough as far as I'm concerned."
"Break Up the Concrete" is the first Pretenders album recorded in its entirety in the United States. Hynde, the band's only constant, decamped to Los Angeles with yet another new lineup, and was finished after just 12 days.
"You hear how flat I sing, and how ropy my vocals are, but you're getting the real deal there," said Hynde, who considers herself more of bandleader than a proper musician. "Nothing's been fixed. Nothing's been patched up."
The opening track, "Boots of Chinese Plastic," sets the album's rockabilly theme, and the frenetic "Don't Cut Your Hair" raises the tempo. Things slow down a little for "The Last Ride," a tribute to Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who is buried in Akron.
The title track, buried near the end, is a literal call to take a sledgehammer to the highways that have eviscerated small-town America and created urban sprawl.
"Get rid of this insane car culture that's destroying us," she explained. "Get back to small (land) shareholdings, get rid of factory farms, get rid of big corporations. Think small."
Hynde is an animal rights activist who got into trouble years ago when she claimed that she had once firebombed McDonald's. But she is hardly a political junkie. She had not heard of U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
In her craving for off-duty anonymity, Hynde shuts out the outside world. Fans are strongly advised to look away rather than acknowledge her if she should pass by on the street. She says she has no obligation to kowtow to the masses except when she's on stage.
"Hey! I'm a rock star! I get paid to do what I wanna do. I don't get paid to invest my money wisely, or be responsible. If I have a responsibility, it's just to my own consciousness."
Reporting by Dean Goodman