Twenty years after their debut album Picture Book, Simply Red are now something of a British institution. Although they may never have been the coolest band to namedrop, Mick Hucknall knows his target audience well, and the hoards of middle-aged, middle-class couples who have bought albums such as Stars and Life have turned Simply Red into one of the country’s most successful acts.
However, there’s been a definite feeling that, creatively, Hucknall hasn’t been on top form for some time. Albums such as Home and Love In The Russian Winter have played it extra safe, consisting of comfortable love songs that say nothing new about the band. They may have still sold millions, but as Hucknall has written a fair number of decent songs in his time, they were disappointingly predictable.
Simplified does at least have a new direction to boast of – that of Latin music. Hucknall, like the late Kirsty MacColl before him, has fallen head over heels in love with Cuba and Simplified is full of Latin rhythms and blaring brass sections. However, in a curious move, there’s a grand total of two new songs on here – this is, essentially, a re-recorded Greatest Hits album, with many of Hucknall’s finest moments being totally re-recorded.
It’s an interesting experiment, but it does rather smack of pointlessness. None of the re-recordings are particularly radical reworkings of the songs – except maybe Fairground, which is sadly missing the terrific drumbeat of the original – and if somebody wants a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection from Hucknall, there are a couple of compilations out there already.
Yet Simplified does provide a chance to see if the critical bile that’s been thrown at Hucknall over the years is deserved or not. He seems to have been dismissed by most critics for the crime of being a somewhat flash Northerner, but it can’t be denied that songs such as Holding Back The Years and For Your Babies are perfect romantic ballads. Both are included here, and benefit from the stripped-down arrangements, with Hucknall’s voice soaring on the former in particular.
The Cuban influence is most pronounced on the single Perfect Love, but it’s brass section and swinging rhythm does remind one of a Ricky Martin B-side. It’s also included in an alternative, more jazzy version called My Perfect Love, but the saxophone break does rather turn the song into something rather too mushy. Smile, here recorded in a Broadway style, is likely to be unlistenable to all but the most loved-up of couples. Also, if More is going to be re-recorded, the least Hucknall could do is get rid of that horrible faux-Jamician “We used to meet from time to time, up in dee mountains” spoken word introduction. He doesn’t.
Sad Old Red is one of the more successful tracks here, but it’s hard to distinguish any difference between the version here and that on Picture Book. Similarly, Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye still sounds great, but with the exception of a Miles Davis-style muted trumpet break, it’s not particularly different from their version on Men And Women. Something Got Me Started does have a new sound to it, being drenched in the Latin vibe, but it’s not altogether successful.
There are some positive points to Simplified – Hucknall sounds terrific throughout, with that voice sounding better than ever. It’s also nice to hear some earlier material, which still stands up well in 2005. Yet it all seems a bit superfluous – maybe Hucknall’s revisited his back catalogue to recharge his creative batteries, or maybe he’s clever enough to realise that Christmas is coming up and this is bound to sell in huge quantities. If you haven’t already got a Simply Red collection, this may be worth investigating – otherwise, its a fans-only job.