In a recent interview for Q magazine, Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall sported a diamond in his tooth. It looked a bit strange to say the least, but when you’ve had some of the hits the British band has had, well, you can sport some bling from time to time. So when Hucknall announced that the group would be no more next year after a farewell world tour, most people suspected that a hits package of some sort would be in the offing. And wouldn’t you know it, Simply Red have done just that, looking at some of the highlights (and a handful of signature songs) which have made them endure for a quarter century.
Fortunately, this collection doesn’t take the route of most hits packages, going from the earliest hits to the newest mediocre offerings. Instead, the disc kicks off with the group’s latest and better hits, starting with “Sunrise”, the sleek, polished easy listening number that falls right into Hucknall’s soulful, slow-groove alley. But the singer sounds far more in his element with the retro-sounding “Stars”, with all of its Motown-inspired R&B flavor.
At times Hucknall sounds like he could have been born in an era warming up for the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, hitting similar notes but never really routinely reaching down deep for that little extra oomph. This is particularly apparent on “A New Flame”, which sounds far too glossy for its own good, even with its slight tango-tinged accents fuelling the verses. The home stretch has some redeeming qualities, but it’s never enough to truly save the song.
When Simply Red opt for the principle that less is more, as they do with a somewhat silly but funky “The Right Thing”, the results are definitely impressive: the groove can do a lot in tandem with Hucknall’s old-school delivery and old soul pipes. Another example: the great “Something Got Me Started”, even though it has traces of dance pop circa C&C and the music factory they owned at one time. But none of these compared with the simplicity of the cover of the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New”, for which Hucknall seems perfect. This gorgeous bit of work would make you dim the lights even if you lived alone.
Perhaps the biggest curse/blessing for Simply Red was “Holding Back the Years”, a timeless song that shot them to the next level of stardom. This tune, along with a select few other songs from the ‘80s, demands your attention whenever it comes on the radio (that medium preceding iPods, and often found in cars). As it was back in 1985, Hucknall’s performance on this track is probably his best ever, as it comes from the heart, relaying his thoughts of being abandoned by his mother at an early age. And it’s a rarity in that the second half of the song seems to be far better than the first half.
The group never really matched that success again, but they were able to muster up some decent pop efforts, such as the harmless, midtempo “Your Mirror”, with its subtle changes, and the slower, tender “For Your Babies”, which sounds like a song Rod Stewart should’ve had a hand in making. One track on here exemplifying the rather big, horribly overproduced method that bands still adhere to is “It’s Only Love”, with bland orchestral touches and terribly glossy keyboards that add nothing.
After the Rio-inspired Carnival feel oozing from the electro-dance mess that is “Fairground”, the record returns to the second glorious moment of the band’s career in “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”, with its graceful, delicate and soothing foundation. Here Hucknall seems to get lost in the song and ends up shining through.
The compilation contains a new song called “Go Now”, which, given its quality, might be a good instruction for Simply Red to follow. Nonetheless, it was a Huck—oops—heck of a good run.
// Notes from the Road
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