Hard to believe that it’s been over two decades since Simply Red stepped on the scene in the same mid-’80s wave of British soul that gave us Loose Ends, Sade, and Everything but the Girl. Actually, a lot of casual music fans would probably be surprised that Simply Red is still around. Although an American hit has eluded them for the past 15 years or so (they haven‘t scored a Top Ten pop hit since 1989), Simply Red (which is now much less an actual band than simply lead singer Mick Hucknall and a revolving set of musicians) has released a steady stream of album after album of smooth blue-eyed soul, topped off by Hucknall’s supple, expressive vocals. They’ve experienced much more success in their homeland, where they still score Top 10 albums and 1991’s Stars is one of the biggest selling albums of all time.
You’ve gotta give Mick some props as one of the premier blue-eyed soul vocalists of all time. Those vocals have managed to ace covers of everyone from Aretha Franklin, to Notes, Barry White, and reggae legend Gregory Isaacs. He’s been produced by everyone from Puffy’s Bad Boy camp to the Fugees to Sly & Robbie, and he’s not lost a step in the twenty-two years since his debut. Fans who’ve been around from day one know what to expect when they pick up a Simply Red album, and Stay is absolutely true to form. This is soul music, not in the contemporary rhythm ’n beats style, but with live instruments, a combination of love songs and socially conscious lyrics, and of course, Hucknall’s warm vocals.
One thing I definitely give Hucknall and Co. props for is that after finishing up their contract with major label Elektra in the early part of this decade, they’ve released three albums independently and their sound has not suffered for the transition. The production, handled by Hucknall along with Andy Wright, is clean and crisp. They’re still utilizing a full band, and are able to pull from sounds ranging from folk to ’70s soul to modern dance. While nothing on Staysticks out as being fantastic, this is a quite solid album overall.
Lead single “So Not Over You” is the sort of timeless pop/soul ballad that has the makings of a hit in 2007, but just as easily could have been a hit in 1977. The album’s title track has a light dance flavor (complete with femme background vocals and luxurious harmonies) reminiscent of past hits like “Something Got Me Started” and “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)”, while “Oh! What A Girl” and “Good Times Have Done Me Wrong” inject a little bit of a more aggressive rock flavor. The latter song is a highlight, with an instrumental arrangement tighter than a pair of old panties…there’s nothing like hearing a band that’s grooving and knows it. Mick’s vocals are just the icing on the cake, here.
The most musically interesting moments on Stay are the ones that sound the most “British”. “Little Englander”, the album’s closing track, has a folk vibe and a children’s choir, while a cover of Ronnie Lane’s “Debris” will remind those that have forgotten: Hucknall is a master interpreter. He’s toned down a lot of the vocal theatrics that marked Simply Red’s earlier records, and “Debris” is an example of his ability to cut to the emotional center of a song without going overboard on the singing. Some meaty guitar playing and a killer horn section helps, too. The second half of the album is distinctly more aggressive (musically and lyrically) than the first half, as exemplified by the two aforementioned songs, as well as “Money TV” and “The Death of the Cool”, all thinly coded potshots at modern culture.
Stay finds Simply Red working with more or less the same bag of tricks they’ve been working with since their debut back in ‘85. Even though the sound hasn’t changed much, the band (or Mick) have made subtle refinements over the years, resulting in their efficient, yet enduring and entertaining, sound. While nothing on this album will blow your socks off, Stay is a classy, well-performed slice of urbane pop/soul that will satisfy the same fans that have been following Simply Red for over two decades.