Simply Red is a group in name only, as it has evolved over the years into a revolving door of musicians fronted by Mick Hucknall. Even though it once included three members of The Durutti Column (drummer Chris Joyce, bassist Tony Bowers, and keyboardist Tim Kellett), Hucknall’s honeyed voice and shock of red curls have defined the band in both sound and image since he founded it in 1985. It’s his property to reinvent as he sees fit, and with Simplified, Hucknall has produced a collection of stripped-down, jazzy numbers that reflect the maturity of an artist who has been going strong for two decades.
Comprised of four newly recorded songs—three penned by Hucknall and the fourth an earnest reading of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”—and eight rerecordings of Simply Red classics, Simplified falls somewhere between a hits collection and an introduction to Hucknall’s latest musical penchant. The contents are certainly stylish and the results are interesting. Hucknall’s polished vocals are the best they’ve ever sounded, and his historically left-leaning lyrics come off particularly refined in this setting.
Hucknall has always been a bit of a musical chameleon, moving seamlessly from pop to R&B to soul to reggae, and with Stars’ “Something Got Me Started” Hucknall takes the neo-soul and translates it to a Latin beat on Simplified. The track benefits from the amped up tempo and Hucknall’s unfailing performance. From their 1985 debut, Picture Book, the US number one “Holding Back the Years” trades its R&B trappings for a lush piano and guitar and horns after-dinner vibe.
The liberal commentary of “Your Mirror”, the second of three tracks off of Stars, transforms from slick, soulful pop into a piano ballad with well-placed strings. While it retains the twittering birds from the original, it takes nothing away from the sophistication of the new arrangement and delivery. The original driving, near-techno beat of “Fairground” is abandoned here for hushed keyboards and horns, allowing Hucknall’s vocals to come completely to the fore, his voice as expressive as ever. The final Stars selection, “For Your Babies” is a piano and strings affair similar to the reworking of “Your Mirror” that soars on Simplified. The sincerity Hucknall brings to the table on “For Your Babies” is an aching love for the object of his affection.
Among the new songs, the first single, “Perfect Love”, kicks-off Simplified with Hucknall going toe-to-toe with Danae Blanco Villanueva. The Cuban beats and multi-lingual, harmonizing vocals mesh perfectly for an upbeat and sophisticated beginning to the disc. Russell’s “A Song for You” is given a heartfelt interpretation by Hucknall. Piano and strings, a reoccurring theme on the album, provide the perfect background for Hucknall’s elegant vocal work.
Smooth and polished, Hucknall has evolved over the last 20 years by moving from genre to genre, deftly mixing carefully chosen covers with an expanding library of originals. This newest phase is exactly the kind of growth that is expected from an artist like Hucknall: a soulful and refined singer who brings the goods on every carefully chosen track, bringing Simply Red’s catalog up-to-date. The only thing missing from the set is the playful sarcasm of a track like “So Beautiful”. It would have been interesting to see what Hucknall could have done with that original in this new setting.