[18 June 2008]
“His music has this sophistication to it, a jazz tinge. There’s also the darkness of his lyrics – Bobby sings with a really twisted pain and sorrow. He’s one of the vocalists who influenced my singing style long before I became a slave to pop success.”
So says Mick Hucknall on his website of soul legend Bobby “Blue” Bland, the man who inspired his latest work. Hucknall, the face of and force behind British group Simply Red, has spent decades supplying audiences with a well-crafted blend of pop and blue-eyed soul. It makes sense then that, with multiple reports of Simply Red’s impending demise (after touring through next year), Hucknall’s look to the future as a solo artist would include a look back to his influences.
Tribute to Bobby is a generously polished, generously produced affair. At times, the album recalls the sheen applied to many pop and soul records of the 1970s; before the production can ever veer too close to camp, Hucknall comes to the rescue with an earnest voice that brings balance. Vocally, Hucknall isn’t content to simply bring a ring of truth to the dozen cover versions that appear here. While, as a singer, he differs in many respects from Bland, his love for the material is clear and he brings an authenticity which solidifies the notion this is the music he’s listened to for a lifetime.
Hucknall shines brightest (and most consistently does right by Bland, the living soul legend) on the album’s bluesy ballads. Especially brilliant are a trio of tunes near the album’s end: “I’ll Take Care of You”, “Chains of Love”, and “I Pity the Fool”; these tracks are among the album’s highlights are a great marriage of Hucknall’s strengths as an artist and the types of tunes Bland has done so very well for so very long. Hucknall has a strong reputation as a balladeer. Simply Red’s two biggest U.S. hits, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “Holding Back the Years”, are wonderfully yearning, soul-stirring slow jams. Hucknall knows how to navigate the emotion inherent in these kinds of tunes and he does so again here.
“I’ll Take Care of You” profits from a sweet, bluesy guitar lick and a steady drive that bolster Hucknall’s case as he assures his woman that he’ll do what the title says in a number of ways. “Chains of Love” is a tender slow-dance waiting to happen while “I Pity the Fool” is a raw, unmasked tale of betrayal and heartbreak that may arguably feature Hucknall’s best vocal turn on the record.
Other moments of radiance include a midtempo tune with a ton of heart—-the horn-and-organ driven “Cry, Cry, Cry”, the you-done-me-wrong blues shuffle “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me)”, and the gospel-infused “I’m Too Far Gone (To Turn Around)”. Hucknall’s selections and his treatment of them reinforce his assertion that Bland’s music is full of varying style elements and emotions.
Where the album proves just a bit weak is in the mixed bag that is its faster tunes, most occurring in the album’s first half. Whereas album opener “Farther Up the Road” is a wonderfully loose and vibrant tune, “Poverty” has an ‘80s pop feel that seems to betray the rest of the album. Immediately following “Poverty” is “Yolanda” which has some sweet horn and organ parts but suffers from a very clichéd, affected guitar riff. Some tightening of these tracks would have made Tribute to Bobby a first-rate soul record.
As it stands, the album is both a quality solo effort from Hucknall and an appropriate tribute to Bland. The project suggests that as Hucknall looks back, he may have a wealth of inspiration to mine in the future.