“The Stones, Van, The Who — none of the class of ’64 has enough gas left in the tank to make a record like this,” Pretty Things manager (and occasional drummer) Mark St. John boldly declares in his liner notes to Balboa Island, their first album in seven years. True enough — the Who haven’t done anything worth a damn since Keith Moon died, Van Morrison is just another boring rock critics’ pet, and the Stones’ current stadium tours are embarrassing.
While the Pretties’ tank isn’t running as low as their contemporaries, their car is one of those high-mileage vehicles that gets you from point A to point B without breaking down, but is nevertheless not showroom new. But hey, it happens to the best of us, and there’s nothing wrong with growing old gracefully.
If nothing else, credit the Pretty Things for not playing it safe on Balboa Island. They could have made a record to please their fans, get airplay from garage punk DJs who worship them, and live up to their “bloodied but unbowed” image (which St. John reiterates in his liners) one more time. Instead, they’ve made something no one expected: An album dabbling mostly in acoustic blues, with a little R&B and psychedelia thrown in for good measure.
Unlike the Stones, to whom they were often compared in their early days, the Pretty Things went from rockin’ R&B into heavy psychedelic rock in the late 1960s rather than the offshoot Delta blues of Stones albums like Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. Nearly 40 years later, it’s the Pretties’ turn and, much like their early material was described as more hardcore than the Stones, their brand of Delta blues is almost as raw and bare as the real thing — territory that the Stones’ otherwise memorable take on country blues never ventured.
With stark lyrics and minimalist arrangements, originals such as “Livin’ In My Skin” and “(Blues for) Robert Johnson” — penned by guitarist Frank Holland and vocalist Phil May — reflect the spirit of the old Delta blues masters, unpretentiously updating the form with a view that digs nearly as deep into the soul as the vintage stuff. Actually, the Pretties offer their take on two traditional blues numbers, “Feel Like Goin’ Home” and “Freedom Song”, in versions faithful to the originals with a bit of English edginess leavening the proceedings. Holland’s own “Balboa Island”, a downcast number that closes the album, also manages that feat.
And then there’s “Buried Alive”, which melds the acoustic Delta influences into a more traditional Pretties beat number with excellent results. “Dearly Beloved” seems to be their take on Stones songs like “Salt of the Earth”, with harmony vocals unifying the theme over a sparse bluesy arrangement for perhaps the album’s strongest cut. Conversely, “The Beat Goes On”, “Mimi”, and “Pretty Beat” are more traditional Pretty Things, sounding like modern R&B in the vein of the previous album, 1999’s Rage Before Beauty. “Pretty Beat”, in fact, is revisited from a 1999 EP, as is “All Light Up”, which segues from a buoyant “Strawberry Fields Forever” intro into a fine slice of pop psych that hasn’t lost its impact after seven years.
Notwithstanding all of Balboa Island’s individual highlights, a cover of Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” drags on for so long (six and a half minutes) that it’s nearly snoring by the end, and “In the Beginning” is their only failed acoustic original — with a particularly cloying refrain of “it’s you” in the chorus. Worse, those two are side by side in the middle of the album, almost like being served plain grits halfway through a seven-course French meal.
But in the unlikely event that that occurred, you’d still remember the four-star restaurant for what it did right — and ultimately, it’s the highlights that stand out most on Balboa Island. The Pretties took a risk and, whether it gives them the recognition they’ve been trying to achieve in the States since 1964, they succeeded most of the time.