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Simply Red in the face

[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

I wanted to like the new Simply Red album, Life. I said nice things en passant about its predecessor, Stars (1992), which succeeded in draining most of the stigma from the easy-listening label so readily applicable to the career Mick Hucknall has improbably cultured from what seemed destined to be have been a one-hit-wonder. (Hucknall is to Simply Red what Debbie Harry was to Blondie – singer, musician, icon, eponym.) But if there's any justice in the world, it will be a dark Christmas for Hucknall, with lumps of coal (heck, plutonium) in the stockings of his manager and the label nabobs who OKed this watery treacle.

We all remember "Holding Back the Years" (the one-hit wonder); its soaring, mostly a cappella vocals achieved soul amid the pap. (Think of Crystal Waters. Same schmeer.) I recall working the graveyard shift as a typesetter in Montreal – this kid knows his picas, folks – with such stalwarts de l'instant as "West End Girls," "I Can't Wait," "Chain Reaction," and "Holding Back the Years" played every night at exactly the same respective minute on the shop radio. Only the Pet Shop Boys and the Simply Red songs did not cause me to gnash my teeth and wonder what the heck I was doing typesetting fractured Catelli macaroni copy at 3:00 A.M. when boys just as red-haired as Mick Hucknall, but more meaty and handsome, by rights ought to be sweeping me off my feet.

But I wasn't bitter, and still am not. I do not disapprove of the easy-listening format (or its tarted-up cousin, adult contemporary). Seal, Mae Moore, and Jann Arden, for example, are fabulous. But I marvel at the vacuity of Life's cookie-cutter silly-love-song lyrics ("Only you know in your heart how the pain felt, how the love made you melt, me and you, love") and lifeless synthesizer programming (even first-generation Depeche Mode showed more of a knack for producing actual music with computers).

The album-closer, "We're in This Together," deploys that last resort of soulless soul singers, the hired black choir, to produce a kind of low-wattage crooning that passes for gospel and fills up the empty spaces Life makes so painfully evident. There was much rationalizing among the Umoja Singers Chorale (of South Africa, no less) as they cashed their paycheques for this gig, I'm sure. Then there's the endlessly-looped sample of the Goodmen's "Give It Up" that dominates "Fairground" with all the naturalness of a William Shatner toupée.

Having survived the Frankenberry/Count Chocula mix of "We're in This Together," one soon runs smack into "Hillside Avenue," whose music is credited to Hucknall. He alone must take the blame for the ethnic shorthand of choosing a "reggae" backing track to accompany hyper-insightful lines like "'Hillside Avenue, Jamaica Avenue' was the sign I saw when I suddenly thought, 'Your health is your life.' Why, why, why was I thinking that?" Why, indeed, Mick? And who cares, Mick?

Compact discs aren't even recyclable. They do, however, work fine as coasters. You can guess what I'll be doing with my copy of Life.

Do not adjust your set

At the other end of the musicological spectrum is Emergency Broadcast Network, the nerdy kooks who pilot their specially-modified station wagon (topped by six 19-inch TV sets plus speakers the size of a casket) to various "alternative" events and subject passersby to their endlessly sampled and looped TV snippets. EBN excreted a self-titled video in 1992 that tested one's capacity to watch George Bush appearing to say "We... will... we... will... rock you" for minutes on end or Harrison Ford shout "Get down! Get down!" to Mariah Carey as she held a high note longer than a Joel Grey number from Cabaret.

Unable to leave well enough alone, those wacky EBN hepcats have done the same thing all over again in Telecommunication Breakdown, which you can waste your money on as a combo audio-CD/CD-ROM/floppy-disc package or as a home video. (Another iteration of "Get Down" is on this baby. Oy.) This is not music à la Frontline Assembly. It is not valid sonic experimentation à la Kraftwerk. It is not art. It is not a political statement à la Consolidated. It is not, moreover, illuminating, enjoyable, formally engaging, novel, or well-executed. EBN is a joke whose punchline we heard a long time ago – over and over and over.

On the plus side, you can at least reformat the floppy disc.