Punk rock didn't invent the woman lead singer, but it certainly did reinvent her. Whether as blatantly as tomboy poetess Patti Smith or as subtly as self-fabricated sex-bomb Debbie Harry, the women who fronted punk bands took all or much of the responsibility for those bands' visions. Fifteen years later, that's become the status quo: Woman-auteur groups are common, and are good or bad, interesting or uninteresting, in roughly the same measure as more traditional boy bands.
The Sundays: 'Reading, Writing & Arithmetic'
Wistful, low-key and sometimes nostalgic, the bittersweet music of the Sundays might at first seem of a piece with the folkie-revival music manufactured for the CD players of graying boomers. Elusive and allusive, as if glimpsed through London's intermittent drizzle, Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin's songs come into focus only in flashes. Those flashes, though, are bracingly free of sentiment and sententiousness: "Wondering why/ When it's sunny outside/ Think about the time/ I kicked a boy till he cried," begins one song on the quartet's debut album, "Reading, Writing & Arithmetic" (DGC); "It's good to have something to live for you'll find/ Live for tomorrow/ Live for a job and a perfect behind," suggests another. Sundays songs are oddly but wonderfully compelling unions of the dour and the ecstatic: "England's as happy as England can be," argues Wheeler in "Can't Be Sure," a bewitching exercise in Sundays-style buttoned-down bliss.
If the sensibility vaguely echoes Smiths singer/lyricist Morrissey, who wasn't expressing his satisfaction with the world when he sang that "Everyday Is Like Sunday," the music explicitly salutes Smiths guitarist/tunesmith Johnny Marr. Gavurin constructs webs of dense but delicate (often acoustic) Marr-tian guitar patterns around Wheeler's swooping, supple voice. For all the Smiths' influence, it's a strikingly distinctive sound, and an astonishingly accomplished one for a band of recent college graduates who had never recorded before "Can't Be Sure," their first single, became a British indie-label hit last year.
"Reading" portrays a world of confusion and doubt; "Everything I ever really wanted to say," sings Wheeler in "Here's Where the Story Ends," "was wrong was wrong was wrong," turning her self-rebuke into a mesmerizing mantra. Yet the band could hardly sound more confident, more right. When the subtly funky "A Certain Someone" ends in a welter of guitar swirls and vocal swells, Wheeler is proclaiming, "We figured it out! We figured it out!" They have.
The Pretenders: 'Packed!'
Like all classic rock recordings, the Pretenders' new album opens with a lively, hooky, instantly familiar song, "Never Do That." The reason it's instantly familiar, though, is that it's 95 percent "Back on the Chain Gang," the band's 1983 single. "Packed!" (Sire) is a pun on a song called "Let's Make a Pact" as well as a boast along the lines of the Velvet Underground's ironic claim that its final album was "Loaded" with hits, but the album might better be called "Honey, Get Me Rewrite."
Not that singer/songwriter Chrissie Hynde was ever a mold-breaking original; the Pretenders were one of those trad-rock bands that were just fresh enough to hitch a ride on punk. Still, she and her collaborators (early producers Nick Lowe and Chris Thomas, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon) created some striking songs from second-hand elements.
Lowe and Thomas are gone (L.A. pop-punk specialist Mitchell Froom produced "Packed") and Honeyman-Scott and Farndon are dead (their '60s-style deaths-by-excess are more evidence of how trad the Pretenders were). For all practical purposes Hynde is the Pretenders these days -- drummer Blair Cunningham is the only other musician to appear on all 11 of these tracks -- and without help the hottest ideas she can come up with are warmed over.
The best song here, the moody "When Will I See You," is the only one Hynde wrote with a collaborator, Johnny Marr; the others simply renovate her past work with various degrees of shamelessness. "How Do I Miss You," a bow to Hynde's hit duets with UB40, is lame pseudo-reggae; "Hold a Candle to This" refurbishes "The Phone Call" with animal-rights outrage ("Blow up the abattoir!" Hynde commands); while "Downtown (Akron)" revisits the site of one of her best songs, "My City Was Gone," for a vulcanized wild-boy sex fantasy. The lyrics that draw on her broken marriage to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr -- "Let's Make a Pact," "Criminal," "Sense of Purpose" -- show a certain fire, but it's often doused by self pity. And when the well-compensated Hynde starts railing at "Millionaires," she gives a new and wholly unpleasant meaning to the name "pretender."
Concrete Blonde: 'Bloodletting'
Dream 6, which became Concrete Blonde upon signing with I.R.S., emerged from the L.A. new wave scene shortly after the Pretenders arose in London. The similarities don't end there. Principal Blonde Johnette Napolitano has been accused of being a Hynde wannabe, and both bands have been make-work projects for aging rock journeymen: CB guitarist James McKay has been a professional player since the early days of Halfnelson (later Sparks) some 20 years ago. Never having had a commercial breakthrough, though, the trio doesn't have a back catalogue worth looting. Instead, they've found the last refuges of punk-rock scoundrels, at least Southern California ones: morbidity and heavy metal.
"Bloodletting" (I.R.S.) has its share of basic-black new-wave poetry, as such song titles as "The Sky Is a Poisonous Garden" suggest. The opening "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" was clearly inspired by those Anne Rice vampire-porn novels, and its sex-as-predation metaphor resurfaces frequently, as in "The Beast": "Love is the beast that will/ Tear out your heart/ Hungrily lick it and/ Painfully pull it apart." (Oh, dear.) The album's best song, "Tomorrow, Wendy," is cut from the same California death-trip cloth, but (significantly) was written by an outsider, Wall of Voodoo's Andy Preiboy.
"Bloodletting" supports Napolitano's black-eyeliner doggerel and histrionic singing with squealing, derivative guitar and a sense of rhythm that makes Black Sabbath's seem lithe by comparison. This decently recorded effort actually isn't the worst album from the Blondes, who appear tomorrow at the 9:30 club, but it doesn't suggest that they're improving in any substantive way.