California iconoclast Brett Dennen is an anomaly in today’s musical landscape, carving out a niche for himself with his self-titled first album back in 2004 and proceeding to spin out funkily elegant strands of timeless pop that turn on heart, hooks and the total absence of irony. With his androgynous voice, romantic inclinations and gift for neoclassic songcraft, Dennen has built a devoted following while existing outside of any trend or movement —which is why cynics find him such a turn-off. But this dude apparently couldn’t care less —the shots he’s taken from the dark side seem to roll off him like water off a duck; Dennen is completely comfortable in his own skin and in his life-embracing vibe.
You have to see him live to get the full picture of this polarizing pied piper. Fronting a rock-steady, surprisingly hard-hitting band, the lanky redhead swivels around the stage brimming with confidence and playfulness, his slinky/gawky body language oddly reminiscent of the New York Dolls’ David Johansen back in 1973 — I kid you not. And Loverboy, with its cleverly self-descriptive title, gets closer to the more full-bodied impression Dennen and his ace posse make onstage than any of its three predecessors.
Eschewing the pointed social commentary of memorable earlier songs like “Ain’t No Reason,” “There Is So Much More” and the zeitgeist-capturing “I Ask When,” Dennen opts to embed a broader humanistic message —“This album is about having fun and letting go,” he writes in his brief liner notes — in sprung rhythms resolving into cascading chorus payoffs. The most immediately sticky tracks are the three sequenced together near the top of the record, on which Dennen gets an assist from co-producer Martin Terefe (who’s done memorable work with Ron Sexsmith, another articulate, single-minded romantic). A pugilistically punchy groove and a guileless “nah-nah-nah” chorus provide “Comeback Kid” with its yin and yang; the balmy, string-laden “Frozen in Slow Motion” evokes the late-morning sun breaking through the marine layer at Paradise Cove; and the handclap-powered falsetto chorus of “Sydney (I’ll Come Running)” trampolines upward from the body of the track in irresistible fashion. Toward the end of the LP, the band stretches out languorously on “Queen of the Westside,” its sleepy-eyed rhythm not that far removed from the narcoticized reggae bump of the Stones’ “Hey Negrita.”
While it may be a bit much to listen to Loverboy as a whole, its 13 tracks spanning 56 minutes coming off as a homogeneous sugar rush, consuming the record in bite-sized pieces can be extremely satisfying. The most engaging tracks deftly blend nimble grooves, creamy choruses and vocal performances of immediacy and genuine feeling, attaining a sort of carefree soulfulness that recalls Van Morrison circa “Brown Eyed Girl” (the seeming blueprint for the ecstatic “Cosmic Girl”) and Silk Degrees-era Boz Scaggs. If you’ve got a problem with that, so be it. But it works for me.