Release Date: Oct 21, 2008
Record label: Dualtone
Remember that counselor from summer camp, the one who would always bring out his acoustic guitar and get all the kids to sing along to James Taylor and Van Morrison? That’s 28-year-old Brett Dennen in a nutshell: His clear, melodic voice and easy-like-Sunday-morning compositions (see: ”San Francisco,” ”Closer to You”) are both benign and comforting on Hope for the Hopeless. It’s not surprising John Mayer recently took him on tour as an opener; the two share a consciousness-raising bent and the kind of tuneful folk-rock accessibility that makes the music supervisors at Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, et al. positively giddy.
A deliberately careful songwriter with an at times Dylanesque flair for unlikely rhymes (he matches "spokes" with "hoax," for instance, and mostly gets away with it), a certain Nick Drake-like fragility (due in large part to his voice, which is pitched high and sounds at times eerily like Billie Holiday), and a subtle African pop feel (he has Femi Kuti singing backing vocals on one of the songs here), Brett Dennen is certainly singular, and at his best, he catches a breezy, mellow groove that allows his thoughtful songs to truly shine. If there's a downside, it's that they all shine in almost exactly the same way, and over the course of an album, can start to feel like one big mellow song sung over and over again without a whole lot of variation. But when these songs work, they really work, and pieces like "Heaven," even though Dennen goes on about things like "the cloth of conviction," are strikingly effective.
It would be far too easy to write Brett Dennen off as a lightweight. For one thing, there’s the 29-year-old Californian’s personality. Unassuming, likeable, easygoing, his shocks of red hair often done up in a bandanna, Dennen is light years away from the brooding, sullen bad-boy image so often associated with the “serious” rock star. Then there’s the musical company Dennen keeps.
Singer/songwriter wears influences on sleeves, pant legs, headband, socks…The temptation is to dismiss Brett Dennen as the sort of derivative ’70s-style singer/songwriter that serves as triple-A radio’s foundation. But maybe the way to look at Hope for the Hopeless—the California native’s third album—is less as the work of a provocative newcomer and more as period drama: historical fiction based in the early-’70s sound of Bob Dylan and The Band, with Van Morrison and Neil Young dropping by. A perfect example is “Wrong About Me,” a “Saint Dominic’s Preview” of an anthem that uses a familiar sound to tackle one of Van’s favorite subjects: professional criticism.