Roots ‘n’ Rock Roundup: Reviews of recent albums by Pretenders, JJ Shiplett, Lucky Holloway and Richard Inman

The Pretenders

Hate for Sale


(Released: July 19.)

Shhh. Listen. Can you hear it? The intriguing spoken asides that graced The Pretenders’ songs Precious, Mystery Achievement and Pack It Up? How about mirror-image guitar and harmonica frequencies that blasted out from Learning to Crawl and Get Close on 10,000,000 radios? Or perhaps it’s the reckless, cock-of-the-walk (or in lead Pretender Chrissie Hynde’s case, box-of-the-walk) style that brands Hynde and never skyrocketed more brightly than during the first decade of her career. Go ahead, lean into the 10 songs that create Hate for Sale, and be ready to get your la-la’s out.

Because Hynde’s sportin’ a voice that hasn’t diminished a smidgen in over four decades, soaring across epic ballads Can’t Hurt a Fool and Crying in Public or ripping up the title track and also Cuban Slide throwback I Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely. Co-writer and The Pretenders’ lead guitarist James Walbourne (born after the band’s first album was released), brings forward premiere ingredients from the past without getting trapped there, as on second track The Buzz when his guitar stylings pay homage to late Pretender James Honeyman-Scott.

It’s a variety pack: a taste of reggae, some crunchy rock, and those sweet ballads. While Hate for Sale doesn’t match their first adrenaline-elevating album (could anything?), it flows with a uniform quality that makes songs fly by. But it would only be pretty tunes without Hynde’s undistilled lyrics that forever deliver the straight goods, like Junky Walk: “Here’s the list, you can lie/Look your mother in the eye/Steal her pills, make her cry/Every junkie has to die.” Not exactly the compassionate sentiments of Gabor Maté, but still the gutsy truth, informed by having lost half of her first band to overdoses.

So hats off to Hynde and this version of The Pretenders. It’s a rare skill to forge clearly ahead while wearing the sweet dust from your variegated past on your kick-ass boots.

JJ Shiplett

Fingers Crossed


(Released: March 20.)

A few months ago, Calgary-based, Brandon-born songwriter JJ Shiplett told an interviewer about wanting to sing the songs he wanted to sing, as opposed to, say, the ones Warner Music offshoot Halo Entertainment were coaxing him towards a few years ago in Nashville.

In spite of the optics of leaving a major label with all the attendant trappings, following his inner compass was not only the brave thing, it was the right one. This is evidenced in Shiplett’s stunning seven-song record, Fingers Crossed, which while it has radio-play written all over it, at least it’s written in a bold, whimsical free-hand that’s much more interesting and inviting than if it had stayed within someone else’s guidelines.

Rich, rounded production showcases the high-end tricks of the trade Shiplett learned in Nashville, including knowing when to leave space for drifting acoustic guitar, fiddle and organ. His voice is the album’s centrepiece, as a voice like his should be, especially on the standout title track.

Fingers Crossed is a collection of songs that hearken back to those tunes that were the soundtrack of your life as you cruised the Main Street of your youth, when there was music, sweet music, music for every romance, for making love in the back seat, music for break-ups, music for every existential crisis as you tried to figure out who you were going to become, music for every speed bump in your life.

Only this music is underwritten by the wise and joyous acceptance of someone who’s followed that compass well beyond the messy angst of youth and discovered the Northern Lights of wisdom, passion and joy. These things are priceless, found only after long journeys searching through junkyards and photo albums, imagining forgotten treasure and remembering the stuff that’s been moved on from. In short, journeys of the soul.

This album is earned. May you always be who you are, JJ. Be who you are.

Richard Inman 

Faded Love Better Days


(Released: May 1, 2020.)

On his third album, Faded Love Better Days, Manitoba’s Richard Inman is still guided by his inner North Star, crafting stripped down songs that employ negative space as much as guitar, fiddle and pedal steel. Or perhaps it’s a South Star, for Inman chisels ideas like mesquite logs, chipping and crafting in the tradition of the Texas greats until only the essence remains, smoke to enhance beautiful truths.

In this spirit, he revisits three songs from last year’s Hasta La Vista, including the title track. Perennial themes abound as stories and people move through Thanksgiving to December Rain to New Year’s woe, a lifetime of rhythms trailing wistful souls like a regretful bit of toilet paper straggling along on a shoe.

While the themes are often bittersweet, Inman’s humour, laced throughout the songs as subtly as that mesquite smoke, keeps things from sliding off a cliff. His ability to interlace a line like, “Turn your lovers fifty shades of blue,” into the same song as, “the man in the mirror ain’t a friend of mine,” is testament to his prodigious talent.

Lucky Holloway

Bring on the Sunshine


(Release date: July 6.)

How could so many challenging things blend to make something so sweet? Lost romance haunting you years down the road, sending blessings to your former beloved even as she lies down with a new love, passing days where the doors are locked from the outside, uncovering fresh love in the depths of your darkest moments, living life with and without alcohol as a co-pilot, the hopefulness, courage and purposeful forgetting of re-marriage, and even surviving Stage IV throat cancer diagnosed while laying down tracks, thus putting your album on hold for a few years before kicking that vile beast’s ass all the way back to the hell it came from.

This mix of myth and life comes into graceful, bittersweet focus on the first album in over a decade by Alberta’s hidden gem of a songwriter, Lucky Holloway, on Bring on the Sunshine. And he deserves some daylight. Actually, truckloads.

The album is a master class of music with miles of style and little flash. Ace musicians Tim Williams, Thom Moon, and standouts Jeff Bradshaw on steel guitar and pianist Earl McAuley, display musical prowess few achieve, all with the casualness of wearing skin over muscle and bone. Holloway’s guitar stylings add a charming, playful dimension, with his waterfall-over-a-bridge riff on Streams of Light being one of the best examples of less is more since Tom Phillips’ High Flyer album.

After so many experiences, one might wish to rage, bellow and kick at the daylight until it bleeds darkness, but not Holloway. Instead, he gives us tracks like the standout rollicking, sad-yet-funny duet with Alberta blues maestro Kirby Sewell, Blood Red Blues, and lines like, “I’m coming unraveled/Jumping out of my skin/Like a slug from a barrel/Of a gun that ain’t aimed,” or, in celebrating the delight in later-life love, “We’ve left the steepest behind/Been a hell of a climb/But we did it with fingers and twine,” all sung in his distinctive cream-in-your-coffee voice.

Celebrating a complex life, this open-hearted offering of songs will work their way further into your ears and heart with each listen.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.