Brett Dennen: Loverboy

Videos by American Songwriter

Brett Dennen

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

There’s no reason to be confused about Brett Dennen’s musical intentions. He spelled it all out for us on “Follow Your Heart,” a simple folk-pop strummer from his third full-length album, 2008’s Hope For The Hopeless: “I am a dreamer, and I am a lover / I’ve been let down, and I’ve loved and lost.”

A hopeless romantic from the word “go” (and his self-titled 2004 debut), this pasty, flaming red-haired, California-based soul-hippie has proven himself a fascinating outlier in today’s pop scene by, ironically, doing absolutely nothing new. Though frequently corralled into the same mellow frat-boy clique as Dave Matthews and John Mayer (touring with both artists certainly added to the pigeonholing), Dennen’s sound thus far has been much more nostalgic and un-showy, built on a foundation of fingerpicked acoustics and purring Hammond organ, worshipping at the altars of now-unfashionable ‘70s legends like James Taylor and pop outcasts like Tracy Chapman. Like Mayer and Matthews, though, part of Dennen’s appeal rests in his goofy slacker charm. Onstage, he’s unafraid to get down in his own unique, nerdy white-boy boogie, and his physical appearance – gangly, comically oversized glasses, a wild orange pompadour that would make Conan O’Brien blush – provides a refreshing contrast from the suave balladeer look that dominates amongst his peers. Basically, he could get away with a thinly-veiled come-on of a song like Mayer’s “Your Body Is A Wonderland” without looking like a pompous tool.

On his first three studio albums, Dennen has proven himself no stranger to a hooky chorus. But he isn’t content with aiming for the charts – his songs are heavy on groove and instrumental texture, sloshing around in dense, patient arrangements and rich, backward-looking production. But something just didn’t click – taken a track at a time, Dennen was a pretty easy fella to get behind (and in live performance, he was even better, allowing the songs to stretch their legs a little through light jamming), but over two sides of a studio album, his world-weary wooing became a tad monochromatic.

In preparation for Loverboy, his fourth album, Dennen sought to soften his relentless grind of touring and recording with a period of relative domesticity, aiming to re-charge his creative batteries. As a result, he learned to actually live like a hippie (instead of just seeming like one): attending shows at local bars, striking up impromptu jam sessions, and riding his bicycle to the grocery store. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Loverboy is his grooviest, headiest, and most natural-sounding to date.

“Surprise, Surprise”, a sparkly minor-key pop tune, opens with a familiar acoustic strum, but it becomes very clear very quickly that Dennen is no longer interested in repeating himself – it shows off a brand new reference point: ‘80s pop, unintentionally evoking the chorus melody from A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” In the press, he’s referred to Loverboy as his “first album,” and in many ways, he couldn’t be more accurate. His folk influences are pushed way to the side – acoustic instruments, when used, help propel and flesh-out the songs instead of steering them. There’s a full range of moods on display, each demonstrating a different side of his soulful palette – on “Song For Leaving,” instead of referencing Paul Simon as literate, fingerpicked poet, Dennen navigates toward a modern Graceland, grooving along with vaguely African guitar/bass riffs and tight percussion. Meanwhile, “Queen Of The Westside” is a bottomless pit of nasty, synth-heavy 3-D funk, somewhat akin to strolling through Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in a drug-induced psychedelic hallucination.

But this newfound eclecticism isn’t jarring. Dennen’s wiggly, sensual vocals are still distinctly unique, and his subject matter is still rooted in earthly matters: good women, bad women, and carpe diem empowerment. This is still feel-good music – it’s just a hell of a lot more interesting. The choruses are stickier, Dennen’s production slicker, thicker, and more rewarding (particularly in headphones). Much credit should go to his stellar band – particularly Zac Rae’s gift basket of keys (Hammond organ, synth, Fender Rhodes) and Dave Wilder’s propulsive bass.

“Walk Away, Watch Me Burn” ends the album with a strange, sloppy slap in the face. Acoustic harmonics ping; a distant bass thumps in a scratchy recording, as if taped from across the hall. In a raw squeal, Dennen sings, “No, I’ve never been afraid of failing / I’m not afraid of global warming / Or the market crashin’ / Or a terrorist attackin’ (…) I’m going down in flames.”

He’s a kamikaze pilot high on soul, aimed straight for our hips and hearts.


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