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Grace at midlife Two of music's coolest women -- Lucinda Williams and Chrissie Hynde -- prove that rock 'n' roll can be ageless

This isn't supposed to happen. Women in the world of popular music are't supposed to hang around in the public eye well into their 50s. If rock 'n' roll, as the old saw goes, is a young man's game, then pop in general is definitely the provision of hot, young and sexy things who are willing to shake it in public, and then go away to do their growing up in private.

Your Paul McCartneys, Tom Pettys and Bruce Springsteens get a pass to hang around forever, as long as they continue to do good work. Not too many women are offered the same opportunity.

Today, however, two of the coolest women in rock release new albums. Both are in their late 50s. Both have found continued sustenance and grace in the seemingly bottomless bounty of guitar-based rock 'n' roll. And as a result, both are dropping some of the strongest music of their 30-year careers.

Interestingly, both Lucinda Williams' "Little Honey" and Chrissie Hynde & the Pretenders "Break Up the Concrete" suggest a new archetype for the aging female pop musician. Call it the "anti-Madonna."

There are no nips, no tucks, no wrinkle-defying age-cream in evidence on these bold new records, just as photos of the two women prove them to be both confident in themselves and comfortable with where they are in life. Hynde and Williams remain irreverent, ragged-but-right in their writing and performance, punkish in their attitudes and authentic in a way that avoids being self-conscious, or trying too hard.

Williams and Hynde are still relevant after all of this time because they refuse to be anything other than what they are. As they both look 60 in the eye -- Wiliams is 55, Hynde 57 -- that means they aren't trying to act or look young. In the youth-worshipping world of popular music, this is pretty close to revolutionary. It's also pretty sexy.

>Out of the darkness

With "Little Honey," Lucinda Wiliams offers an about-face from the nigh-on-maudlin, introspective, downbeat songs that comprised her 2007 release "West." That album dealt in death, depression, heartbreak that won't quit and the general disintegration that comes with aging -- particularly if you've lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle for any significant stretch of time.

"Little Honey" wipes the slate clean, returning us to the boozy good times of albums like "Essence" and "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," both of which balanced the beautiful sloppiness of the Rolling Stones with stately, country-based tear-jerkers, without ever becoming too weighed down by either.

That's not to say that this new album isn't poignant or reflective -- the heart-rending, whiskey-and-cigarettes country ballad is still what Williams does best, and "Little Honey" has one of her finest in "If Wishes Were Horses."

Still, this new album is, on balance, an upbeat, guitar-soaked, rockin' Saturday night album, much more than a "Sunday morning coming down" collection. And that's exactly what we needed from Williams right now

Sassy, spirited, and defiant, Williams and her killer band -- featuring the gorgeously gritty guitars of Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster -- come out of their corner swinging with "Real Love," a greasy country-fried rocker whose chorus is pushed toward the heavens by the guest harmony vocals of Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet. "Circles and X's" is a familiar Williams country-waltz with plenty of the lyrical imagery the songwriter is renowned for. ("You turn around to wave goodbye, you look at me and linger/The morning hears you sigh, and sunlight reflects off the silver on your finger," is a nice collection of images that fit the "country cheatin' song" format, but breathe new life into it as well.)

"Little Rock Star" chastises a rock 'n' roll enfant terrible with a death wish -- Amy Winehouse, maybe? Again, Hoffs and Sweet offer heavenly harmony, and the guitars are big and bold. Elvis Costello shows up to duet on the hilarious, bawdy "white trash" send-up "Jailhouse Tears," which is a joke, certainly, but one that arrives right when it should, to keep the air from getting too thick.

That Williams can tackle AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To the Top" with absolute conviction, claiming some of the band's tough-guy, boys' club raunch for the fairer sex, is a testament to her winning blend of brains and bravado. Both continue to serve her well.

>Swagger and snarl

If Keith Richards had been born with the female chromosome, he probably would've ended up bearing an uncanny physical and intellectual resemblance to Chrissie Hynde. The pegged skinny-jeans, the pirate boots, the form-fitting T-shirt, the immaculate bed-headed shag, the Fender Telecaster at hip level, the no-nonsense rock 'n' roll attitude -- all are attributes the too rolling stoned Richards and the age-defying Hynde share.

When Hynde emerged with the Pretenders nearly 30 years back, she was a rocker's dream, all tossled bangs framing go go girl eyeliner, a punker's leather jacket on her shoulders and spite on her tongue. Hynde was always more than the image, though. She might've looked like a biker chick, but she was smart, too, and most of her best songs were touched by a Romantic's idealism. Hynde and the Pretenders were punk rock, but they transcended punk immediately, by insisting that melody was king (and queen).

Now, well past the age when she'd be forgiven for retiring, and smack in the middle of an era when the Pretenders don't stand much chance of meaning much more than nostalgia allows, Hynde has released one of the strongest records of her career. In fact, it's only outdone in the Pretenders' canon by the band's flawless first two albums; "Break Up the Concrete" sounds like the work of a band at the beginning of its career.

Part of the reason for this is the raw, "underproduced" nature of the recording itself, which is primal and urgent, raucous and rollicking. Hynde and the assembled -- including revered veteran studio drummer Jim Keltner -- delve into Sun Records-era rock and rockabilly, rustic electric blues romps, and soaring country-styled weepers. Consistently, the band plays with a swagger in its hips and Hynde, as ever, can't help but indulge the snarl in her singing voice. That means the smoking album-opener "Boots Of Chinese Plastic" is spit more than sung, the title tune roars by like Bo Diddley on a bender, and "Rosalee" is a post-closing time bar-room boogie delivered with a wink.

At heart, however, Hynde remains a masterful manipulator of poetic images, and as she ages, this ability has matured right along with her. There is a wistfulness at the core of "Break Up the Concrete," and it's a wise, grown-up version of the confident young woman who sang "Brass In Pocket" who delivers it.

Hard-won reflections on life, love, politics and aging might not be what the kids are craving these days. But as ever, Hynde simply doesn't care. That makes her a strong woman, to be sure. It also makes her part of a dying breed.

It's a breed, though, that has no intention of going quietly.

***

Lucinda Williams

Little Honey

[Lost Highway]

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

*

The Pretenders

Break Up the Concrete

[Shangri-La Music]

Review: 3 stars

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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