Rock 'n' roll women are still crazy after all these years -- crazy for being in the business at all, most of them. Women rockers are either figureheads or airheads; manipulated or media-ted; reviled for being plastic or reviled for being physical. It's an iron maiden who can truthfully claim to have her own career in hand and not be clutching at straws.

The Pretenders are a notable exception: an ambitious, experimental band. American-born and Europunk-bred Chrissie Hynde is its driving force, majority composer and one of the most distinctive vocalists of the '80s. She sounds like Rickie Lee Jones possessed by Mercedes McCambridge; her voice reeks of the same oral excesses that Mick Jagger used to intimate. And, like Jones and Joni Mitchell and other self-supporting acts, Hynde can get away with playing hocus-pocus with the sounds and sense of her lyrics. Who knows them better?

"Pretenders II" (Sire SRK 3572) is an intriguing and sometimes irritating album, but never disappointing. At its best, it's a collection of bitterly witty social commentaries; at worst, it can be labored and repetitious. Still, the entire album is illuminated with Hynde's wryness and clarity. If she hasn't produced the perfect album yet, it's only from lack of practice.

Hynde can turn her voice to a fair melody if she wants, but it's a perfect percussion instrument. "Birds of Paradise" may be the album's most accessible track, in the ordinary sense, but it's not the most arresting: In "Bad Boys Get Spanked," an unremarkable sneer at the "say yes ma'am, say no ma'am" school of parental authority, Hynde cracks through the chorus like a cat-o'-nine-tails. This woman is her own weapon.

Hynde knows the power of surprise. The cynic, as hard as she would deny it, coexists with the romantic. "We are all of us in the gutter," she sings, but "Some of us are looking at the stars."

She enjoys the twisted epigram and the paradox. "They'll take your back and leave your shirt," she shrugs, and flipping a salute to another master of word play, she quotes Nick Lowe: "You got to be cruel to be kind." She has a huge repertoire of musical references as well, lilts from late-'60s Britain and licks from mid-'60s Muscle Shoals.

She also has developed, whether by instinct or intent, a fine ear for the emotional impact of various phonemes. That sibilants threaten and final t's crackle gives unexpected snap to the lines, "You slaughter then you feast/You disrespect the beast."

"Pretenders II" suffers a little from Hynde's occasional lapses of sophistication, but subtlety is an acquired pace. The greatest weakness of "Pretenders II" is external -- the production by Chris Thomas. This is a bare-knuckles band that struts and frets its power upon the stage. Thomas has used only a handful of backup musicians (primarily brass) in a laudable attempt to reproduce the group's eerie resonance. Unfortunately, he has overestimated the conceit of Hynde's voice being a "pure" instrument: The mix is so blunt, so flatfooted that the vocals are nearly lost. And as Hynde is still feeling her way between intonation and incoherence, the lyrics are even more difficult to decipher.

The group Rolling Stone named best newcomer last year is testing its muscle, and the tone is good. The Pretenders are scheduled to play Washington at the end of September.