Decades after the Pretenders’ earth-shaking debut album, Chrissie Hynde released her first solo album, 2014’s Stockholm. Produced by Björn Yttling of Swedish band Peter Björn and John, Stockholm is a collection of sharp pop songs, mostly co-written by Hynde and Yttling. Stockholm was a mostly successful stab at modern-day pop, but rough up the production a little bit and you might just find a Pretenders album.
While Hynde returned to the Pretenders’ name for the garage rock and soul of 2016’s Alone, her new album, Valve Bone Woe, is credited to Chrissie Hynde with the Valve Bone Woe Ensemble. While Chrissie Hynde’s voice remains as distinctive an instrument as it was in 1979, no one is ever going to mistake Valve Bone Woe for a Pretenders album. And we’re clearly not in Stockholm anymore.
But what exactly is Valve Bone Woe? It could be a jazz album, or a mood music album, or a covers album, or a wee-small-hours-of-the-morning album. Valve Bone Woe could conceivably be nominated for the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy award, and it could win. These descriptions all work, and yet Valve Bone Woe doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those categories.
There is no evidence that this is true, but Valve Bone Woe feels like it ought to have this origin story: many years ago, Chrissie Hynde made herself a mixtape featuring 14 of her favorite songs. She fell in love with the mix, but lost it in her travels, only to find it again years later. Upon rehearing the mix, Hynde decided to record her version of the mixtape, sequencing it as she had on the original tape, and vowing to take each song exactly where she felt it needed to go.
The result: Valve Bone Woe, a wildly eclectic collection of songs in which Nancy Wilson leads into Brian Wilson, Nick Drake hobnobs with Coltrane, Charles Mingus communes with Ray Davies, and surprising arrangement and production ideas abound. It’s a wild ride.
Hynde opens Valve Bone Woe with a relatively straightforward reading of Nancy Wilson’s 1964 hit “How Glad I Am”, backed by a large band (over 50 musicians are credited on the album). We’re off to a great start, and certain musical parameters for the rest of the album appear to have been set.
Except, no. Up next is a spacey, moody meditation on Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No”. It feels relatively faithful on some level to the Wilson’s original, throughout the song these weird ambient effects bubbling under the surface that eventually bring the song to an otherworldly conclusion. It’s odd and disquieting, but it works. And you could easily describe all of Valve Bone Woe that away. Odd. Disquieting. But, spend some time with Valve Bone Woe, and it’ll get deep inside you.
Part of the allure of Valve Bone Woe lies in song selection and juxtaposition. How does one process a track sequence of Coltrane’s “Naima”, Hammerstein/Rodgers’ “Hello Young Lovers”, and Ray Davies’ “No Return”? How does Mingus’ “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” fit into the equation? And what about that bone-chilling version of Nick Drake’s “River Man”?
Hynde, of course, offers no clear answers to these questions, and what fun would that be anyway? On a certain level, Valve Bone Woe is simply a collection of songs that Chrissie Hynde enjoys, and that’s enough. But with its orchestral ambitions, imaginative song selection, and sometimes unexpected sonic architecture, Valve Bone Woe is a supremely odd journey as well. If you trust in Chrissie Hynde’s voice, it will guide you through the twists and turns along the way. Valve Bone Woe is worth the trip.