Simply Red

Stay

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Given his long history of smooth, classy blue-eyed soul, it's easy to forget that Mick Hucknall was inspired to make music by the Sex Pistols. While it's true that Hucknall's Simply Red has never, ever sounded like the Pistols -- or any punk for that matter -- there is an obstinate independent streak that runs throughout his music that's led him to such strange detours as Love and the Russian Winter, as well as his position as an independent artist in the new millennium, releasing Simply Red albums via his own label, Simplyred.com. That independent spirit also surfaces on some of the songs on 2007's Stay, his third release on Simplyred.com, but it's subtle and buried toward the end of the album. For the first half of Stay, Hucknall remains in his trademark upscale blue-eyed soul territory, sounding smooth and stylish whether he's singing ballads or snappier songs like the effervescent "Oh! What a Girl!" Although this sounds familiar, it sounds fresher than it has in a few years: Hucknall isn't trying to compete with such modern U.K. retro-soul phenoms as Amy Winehouse or Joss Stone, but he's looser and lighter than he was on 2003's Home, which is quite welcome. Just as the vibe feels just a bit too comfortable, Stay takes a couple of sly left turns. First, there's a quite wonderful and unexpected cover of Ronnie Lane's "Debris" that's understated and a bit rougher than the norm from Simply Red. After this, the album opens up a bit. There's one more standard soul song in "Lady," but it's a stronger, tighter, sexier single than much of the rest of the record, and then there comes a trio of angry, social comments that offer strong reminders of Hucknall's past as a punk. Not that they sound punk -- apart from the school children's choir that sings along on the closer, "Little Englander," they're recognizably Simply Red -- but with "Money TV" and "The Death of the Cool," he strikes out at the commercialization of culture. Now, some could argue that swaddling these sentiments in such smooth soul undercuts their power, but there's a palpable anger to Hucknall's message and a sly subversiveness in his method that makes this half of Stay interesting -- and when combined with the solid soul of the first half, it adds up to one of his strongest latter-day records.

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