Though I can't profess to ever having been a huge Simply Red fan, I've always thought that Mick Hucknall had a pretty good voice and being a fan of soul music from the Sixties and Seventies his latest album seemed right up my street. 'American Soul' was released at the end of October and is currently available for £8.99 in CD format or £6.49 for the MP3 download.
It's a rather ambitious project for any white singer to attempt what is usually regarded as the preserve of black American singers and the ones who've been able to cut the mustard in this arena are pretty thin on the ground. My overall opinion is that Mick is not going to join their ranks.
The album begins with his version of Otis Redding's 'That's How Strong My Love Is' and it's immediately obvious that Mick is no Otis. I'm a huge Otis Redding fan so his version was always going to be a hard act to follow but I was willing to give Mick the benefit of the doubt. The track begins with some dreadful tripling strings, flute and harp, a far cry from the Stax signature sound. This intro seems very incongruous to the rest of the song which is sung with a rocky rather than a soul beat and with an orchestral backing all the way through not helped by a choir chiming in every so often. Mick's voice is verging on the soulful but never reaches the depths of emotion that this song requires and which was there in spades in the original.
Mick makes a much better job of 'Turn Back the Hands of Time' , keeping the Motown/soul rhythm and his lighter voice is perfectly suited to this slightly more up tempo and less emotional song. The track begins with a very short guitar riff before Mick's voice chips in. His treatment is along the lines of The Temptations or The Four Tops with guitar and choir backing again but here it's much more in keeping with the song.
My initial thought on Mick's rendition of 'I'd Rather Go Blind is that I'd rather go deaf! This is a fabulous song, originally recorded by Etta James and covered by Christine Perfect when she was in Chicken Shack. Christine Perfect's version, to my mind, is the definitive one, bluesy and soulful all at the same time. Mick's version, on the other hand, is OK vocally but without wishing to be at all sexist, this is a song for a woman to sing and the transposition of gender just doesn't seem to work. When sung by a man it just makes him sound unmasculine and needy.
The backing track is good with some great blues guitar playing and even though the choral backing sometimes turns this into a gospel rather than a soul song, it's Mick's voice which spoils it and it completely lacks the depth of soul required for such an emotive song.
'Lonely Avenue' is a Ray Charles song and sadly Mick's version again just misses the mark. To be fair, it's mainly the backing track which spoils this the most. It's far too orchestral for something purporting to be soul and although there are odd occasions when Mick hits the right feel, for most of the song it just sounds a monotonous dirge.
The version of 'I Only Have Eyes for You' begins with a strange faraway vocal but once Mick gets up to the mike and begins to sing properly, this is a pleasant enough song. I certainly wouldn't call this soul music, however. This is a big band ballad and that's the treatment it's given here with lots of swooping strings plus piano and percussion. Sadly, there are times during the song when Mick's voice seems to strain to actually hit the notes. The only version of this I have to compare it with is that of Art Garfunkel and, again, Mick's falls a little short.
Aaron Neville's 'Tell It Like It Is' fares rather better than most songs on the album. The tempo is slow and bluesy and Mick does manage to inject this song with some soulful emotion. The song suits his voice, especially in the parts which call for a falsetto voice. This is definitely one of the better tracks and one of my favourites on the album.
'Baby What You Want Me to Do' is also one of the better songs. It's more up-tempo and the organ accompaniment gives it a Booker T sort of sound and it benefits from not being over orchestrated. Again, the song suits Mick's own vocal style and is reminiscent of the stuff he produced during his Simply Red days. This is followed by another OK song which Mick manages not to cock up. Having said that, it isn't the most memorable track on the album.
'Let Me Down Easy' is one of the standout tracks for me. The way the song has been arranged perfectly suits Mick's voice and he does a sterling job. It also benefits from some great guitar work midway through the song. The original was by Inez Foxx who gave it a sort of jazz/blues interpretation and it's also been covered by Paloma Faith. Mick's version is different from both of these and though it lacks the truly soulful feeling that is very evident in Paloma Faith's version, his lighter treatment works even though the song is about the break-up of a relationship.
Let me down easy
All your love for me is gone
Let me down easy
Since you feel to stay is wrong
I know it's not over
But it's the last goodbye
'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' is Hucknallified into mediocrity with all the emotion of the Animal's version stripped out. It's presented as a softer ballad and though it sounds pleasant enough, for anyone who remembers the Animals gritty performance, this will be a huge disappointment.
I would never have likened Mick Hucknall to Perry Como but his cover of 'It's Impossible' is very good. If Mick's looking for a direction in which to take his singing, I suggest he steers clear of soul in the future and heads towards this style of singing. It isn't my kind of music, I have to admit. It's very orchestrated and definitely not soulful at all but is much more suited to Mick Hucknall's voice which seems to be aging rather badly.
The album ends with 'Hope There's Someone' which is a slow, quiet ballad and is absolutely beautiful. In fact, I think it's the best track on the entire album and more to the point, Mick's version is way better than the original from Antony and the Johnsons. It's quiet and introspective as you would expect from a song about fear of what's beyond death, and the simple orchestration is kept well in the background allowing Mick's voice to take centre stage. Even though he sometimes strains to reach the notes, this enhances the overall emotion of the piece.
Oh I'm scared of the middle place
Between light and nowhere
I don't want to be the one
Left in there, left in there
Overall, I found this album rather disappointing. Though Mick Hucknall has a good voice, even if it is sounding a bit more tired than 20 years ago, he doesn't really have what it takes when it comes to soul music and his cover versions nearly all fall short of the originals. When it comes to ballads, he's great and 'Hope There's Someone' is a truly beautiful song and I feel that is probably the musical direction that he should head for as there are far better soul singers than him out there.
I can't really recommend anyone buy this album unless they're a huge Mick Hucknall fan and can therefore make allowances for his less than soulful performances but I would certainly recommend listening to and downloading 'Hope There's Someone'. It doesn't quite make buying this album worth it, however.
Link: Hope There's Someone