by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Although they’re much more popular internationally than in the United States, the interracial British soul-pop outfit Simply Red isn’t exactly an obscure commodity in America, either. In fact, the Mick Hucknall-led band made waves more than once during the ‘80s, scoring four Top 40 hits in the back half of that decade, including two Number One hits, the moody and haunting ballad “Holding Back the Years” and their remake of the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes R&B classic “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” [Their other two Top 40 hits from those years are their cover of “Money’s Too Tight (to Mention),” originally done by the obscure American R&B duo The Valentine Brothers, and the Hucknall original “The Right Thing.”]
So it’s somewhat strange that the band’s all-time best selling album worldwide, 1991’s Stars, which went platinum twelve times over in Britain alone (it still remains one of the twenty best-selling albums of all-time in that country), became their worst-charting album in America to that point, stalling all the way back at #76 and yielding only one minor hit in the R&B/dance-oriented grooves of “Something Got Me Started,” which became their fifth (and, sadly, final) Top 40 hit on these shores, peaking at #23.
While the song’s certainly very catchy and its production quite appealing, it’s not exactly all that impressive when viewed purely as a piece of songwriting (the lyric and music both get just a little too repetitive to really work all that well when stripped of the well-crafted dance grooves that underpin the song), so it’s a bit unfortunate that the cut was pegged as the lead-off single from what is largely a mellow disc. (Besides, Simply Red always fared much, much better in America with their ballads than with their up-tempo material and were more popular on adult-contemporary stations than they were in dance clubs, so “Something Got Me Started” was not likely to be received nearly as warmly by the stations that gave such heavy airplay to “Holding Back the Years.”)
So what makes Stars the band’s best album? Simply, the band never sounded more polished or confident. In the past, the band’s albums always sounded just a little bit too raw for a band that clearly catered to an adult-contemporary crowd, whereas Stars smoothed out the band’s edges and the production was glossier than ever, but in a way that clearly fit the band and didn’t smack of selling out. That, coupled with Mick Hucknall’s growing skills as both a songwriter and vocalist and the band’s willingness to forego covers for the first time in favor of a full disc of originals, made all the difference, and the rest of the world took note.
In spite of the chart success of “Something Got Me Started,” the album’s true defining cut – and the best demonstration of Hucknall’s dramatic improvement as a songwriter – is its title track, which stalled at #44 on the American Top 40, but was a Top Ten hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts and a U.K. Top Ten hit as well. Perhaps it was simply too mellow a cut to appeal to most Top 40 listeners, but the percussive yet mellow soul-pop number boasted the most lovely melody Hucknall had penned to date and surrounded it with all kinds of delightful ear candy, particularly the dreamy guitar lick that permeated the song’s instrumental sections and the seductive percussion work of the band’s new drummer, Gota Yashiki. The song had an airy feel to it that made it a surprisingly soothing and relaxing song for an up-tempo number and an especially fitting soundtrack for a starry evening or as in-flight music to zone out to while cruising through the clouds.
“Thrill Me,” in contrast, is designed for the dancefloor, but it’s nearly as alluring. It’s considerably slower and sultrier than “Something Got Me Started,” but it’s also more hypnotic for that reason and it also feels like a much more fully-realized piece of songwriting. “Your Mirror” is anything but danceable and might be the most unconventional single the band’s ever made – Yashiki has to keep changing gears throughout from behind his kit – but it’s strangely much catchier than it would seem to be on paper.
The album’s most beautiful moment, however, would have to be the dreamy ballad “For Your Babies,” which features some devastatingly pretty acoustic guitar from Heitor TP and one of Hucknall’s most moving sets of lyrics, the chorus of which finds him gently crooning “I don’t believe in many things, but in you, I do.” The song didn’t reach the Hot 100 at all in the U.S., but it deservedly became one of two Top Ten hits from the album in the U.K. (the other being the title cut).
Simply Red would go on to make some good albums in the future as well (2003’s Home is especially fun, boasting two killer singles in the brass-heavy, old-school-soul of “Fake” and the dreamy “Sunrise,” which ingeniously takes the instrumental bed of Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” and builds an entirely new song around it to stunning results), but Hucknall and his band would never quite top this disc, which, from start to finish, remains the most consistent and confident of all their full-lengths. Why America never latched on to this one the way the rest of the globe did, I haven’t a clue.