The Pretenders
¡Viva el Amor!
(Warner Bros.)

Doing the late-night channel-surf thing recently, I stumbled across a broadcast of Hard Rock Live, the VH1 live-performance showcase featuring classic rock acts. The Pretenders were holding court, and the resulting performance was a testament to the talents of singer-songwriter Chrissie Hynde. It's been 20 years since Hynde surfaced on the pop music scene, yet she still exhibits the same unaffected charm she displayed during her '80s heyday. Clearly unconcerned about dainty appearances, Hynde served up a smorgasbord of hits while mascara streaked down her sweaty face. It wasn't a pretty sight, but it was real. More important, it was rock 'n' roll.

Hynde has always de-emphasized her sexuality in favor of a more direct approach, so it's not surprising that the Pretenders' new CD, ¡Viva el Amor!, is a stripped-down commentary on our soulless, glamour-obsessed society. The album is also a caustic chronicle of a failed marriage. Yet despite its bitter sentiments, Viva never stoops to Alanis-style righteous indignation. If anything, Hynde seems more vulnerable than ever. "I'm only human on the inside," she sings on the album's first single, "Human," and her conviction is enough to break yourheart.

If its lyrics can be interpreted literally, Viva was written in the aftermath of an acrimonious divorce -- perhaps Hynde's breakup from Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr. In any case Hynde has parlayed her pain into a sterling collection of songs. On the uproarious "Popstar," she mocks her ex-lover's midlife crisis, while on "Who's Who" she condemns him and his trendy new wife to a life of soul-stifling drudgery. To wit: "Your future exists in her shopping lists, please call your office…."

Hynde's keen sense of humor helps offset her venomous lyrics, and her melodies are as engaging as ever. Steeped in classic songcraft and hard-rocking spirit, Viva is an oasis of intelligence amid the alternapop wasteland. -- Bruce Britt

The Beta Band
The Beta Band

This Scottish quartet comes packaged with a heap of hype on the strength of three critically lauded EPs. Sure enough, their ability to synthesize jam-rock, Beck-style cut-and-paste, and hip-hop proves impressive enough on an EP. But a short attention span mars the Betas' first full-length piece. They simply don't seem comfortable making grand statements of the new collage-rock. Instead The Beta Band seems too scattershot -- even considering the anything-goes approach -- with nothing more than minor triumphs.

A Beta Band song is full of unexpected, though not unpleasant, twists and turns. "Broken Up a Ding Dong" (yes, that's the actual title) chugs along as a bluesy, acoustic guitar/handclap number before detouring into a Caribbean-style steel drum jam. Starting with a staggering drum machine -- echoed dub-style -- "No.15" continues the island theme with more steel drums and upbeat, accented guitars along with stoned, mumbled vocals from singer-guitarist Stephen Mason. In addition, cuckoo clocks chirp, tiny bells plink, tropical birds caw, and the groove saunters and petersout.

If the Beta Band concentrated more on the results and less on the process, things could be stunning. The whacked-out jamming on "Ding Dong" is an interesting side trip while "Simple Boy" is bubbly and rambling, but too often we get the measured pace of something like "No.15," which, despite the cavalcade of instrumentation, stubbornly sits in onemood.

Would that the whole record were as simply pleasurable as "Smiling": castanets, a funky clavinet, drum loops, and chanted, processed vocals that swell and retreat for a full eight minutes. The track has the pacing and structure of a good song, not just the quality of four guys playing at the same time. Still, any record that quotes Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (see "The Cow's Wrong") has its intentions in the right place. -- David Simutis

Heather Eatman
Candy &Dirt
(Impossible Records)

Split the diff between Rickie Lee Jones and the Indigo Girls, and you come up with Heather Eatman, a quiet spitfire of a songwriter whose wonderful debut, 1995's Mascara Falls, was released on John Prine's Oh Boy Records.

Candy &Dirt is more of the same: Eatman's tuneful compositions set to a variety of quietish rootsy instruments -- mellotron, Wurlitzer, and a half-dozen guitars. She has a brochure kind of voice -- breathy and love-struck -- but she puts it to optimal use, plying romantic woe when the moment demands ("Alright") and playful sass for the up-tempo numbers ("Nice Girl," "Driving Darlene").

Something in Eatman's spirit, a certain somber plangency, is best suited to those songs that aim for the lonely hearts. "Great White Hope" is a lullaby dedicated to every girl who's traded in her body for an errant shot at love, while "Too Tired to Be Elvis" is a wrenchingly beautiful ballad that closes with a chanted refrain of "Bebopalula." Elvis hasn't sounded so true in years. -- Steve Almond

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Bruce Britt
David Simutis