A Hopeless Wonder

Brett Dennen's New Album Is Hit Or Miss

Mop-topped folkie Brett Dennen deservedly stepped center stage in 2006 with So Much More. It was a lyrically and melodically poised sophomore set of understated gems that paid as much respect to Bob Dylan's poetic grace as it did to Jack Johnson's new-island aesthetic. His emotive voice - an androgynous blend of Nina Simone and Paul Simon with a folksy, backwoods twist - made those songs, and several others off his 2004 eponymous debut, shimmer with a hopeful spirit of utopian dreams. A few years back, in front of a crammed Grog Shop audience, his voice, high-riding guitar and confident delivery were even more powerfully portentous. It was like watching a rocket set to launch.

And it did. With early fan John Mayer bringing Dennen for stateside and abroad tours, Dennen's been tossed into a pool of Pop-Rocks, expanding his fan base and critical recognition, but also apparently skewing his better judgment. With the release of Hope for the Hopeless, Dennen's swing through the commercial marketplace reveals itself to be at least slightly detrimental to the purity and power of his sound. On So Much More, timeless protestations like "Ain't No Reason" and "I Asked When" energized a revolutionary spirit that was emboldened with timeless ballads filled with anguish and devotion ("So Long Sweet Misery," "The One Who Loves You the Most"). There's no prolonged ride like that on Hope, though you would expect something like it from one of Rolling Stone's "Artists to Watch in 2008."

Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of producer John Alagia (Mayer, Dave Matthews Band), who gives much here a plasticized homogeneity, much like he's done with his past clients. Opener "San Francisco," "Closer to You," "Heaven," "Follow Your Heart" and "Who Do You Think You Are?" reveal a dumbed-down poppy version of Dennen's more saccharine, precious side. It's not bad; it's just not great. While So Much More exhibited some of this dilution - and some would argue it's part of his mass-market appeal - it was all threaded throughout a solid quilt of varied and articulate offerings, giving them utility, like ginger between bites of sushi. There's too much of it here - just like with Mayer's music these days. Maybe if Dennen had toured with Ray LaMontagne, none of this would've happened. Thanks, John.

Dennen is still putting out some great songs, though, and sounding just as assured at the mic. The first single, "Make You Crazy," a collaboration with Afrobeat star Femi Kuti, bounces in a catch-all rhythm but with solid sentiments ˆ la Michael Franti; slow-city rockers "When She's Gone" and "Wrong About Me" are keys-driven Ben Folds-like material made more powerful with Dennen's soulful voice; "So Far From Me" is a folk lament that shows off Dennen's masterfully articulated sensitivity ("If your heart wasn't such an ocean, I wouldn't sink like a stone"); and the closer, "Ain't Gonna Lose You," is a misty ballad that would move even the coarsest lover. It's hopeless to have hope for an album-length thrill here. But there's enough beauty to foster hope that next time Dennen will give us More again.

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