BY ALLI MARSHALL
“I’ve got a hard reputation,” singer-songwriter Brett Dennen sings on the jogging, Paul Simon-esque album opener “Sweet Persuasion.” It sets a mood on just-released Smoke and Mirrors and (re)establishes Dennen as a master of the hooky alt-pop tune. It also offers the first of many confessions that are at once emotionally accessible and kind of hard to buy into. Dennen as a heartbreaker? Dennen as anything akin to a bad boy? (I played the achingly-sweet slow dance, “Only Want You,” for my husband who surmised that Dennen had penned the track for his pet Guinnea pig.)
It’s on “Wild Child” that Dennen draws the shortest line of connection. The rollicking, feel-good folk-rocker is the instant anthem of all rebels and hippies (especially those who are rebellious free spirits in more so in their own minds than outwardly). That was the first song that Dennen wrote for Smoke and as the album’s flagship it’s already inundated the airwaves. There’s also a video for the single — a sun-dappled nature trek in which Dennen encounters a horse, slices an apple with a pocket knife and looks like he got dressed in John Denver’s closet.
The singer-songwriter says that “Wild Child” reconnected him to his roots. Fed up with outside pressure and influence on who he needed to be as a musician, and tired from touring, he retreated to his mountain house in the Sonora Pass region of the Sierra Nevada. It’s an area where, as a kid, Dennen hiked and worked as a camp counselor.
But if Smoke represents a return to the great outdoors for Dennen, the Charlie Peacock-produced project showcases less wilderness, more polished simplicity. Each track is self-contained, from the fingerpicking-into-lush strings of “Only Want You” to the fuzzed-out garage(ish) rock of “When We Were Young.”
That song, with its the uber-relatable line, “High school was a catastrophe, it was a failure factory,” hints at the Dennen of “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog).” But here, the singer’s unusual voice is matched-to-the-point-of-blending with the percussive guitars and electronic warbles.
Perhaps it’s because it follows the insouciant energy of “When We Were Young,” by the smooth and somber title track is mostly forgettable. It’s well-written and poignant, but Smoke has more engaging tracks of the thoughtful ilk. “Don’t Mess With Karma,” likely a condemnation of those who stand in the way of gay marriage, is rhythmically intriguing, with layered guitar parts and pretty harmonies. (The female singer takes the low harmony to Dennen’s rangy tenor.)
The CSN-flavored “Who Am I” also examines personal politics. The atmospherics feel modern, but the steel guitar is straight out of the ‘70s. Just try to listen to that song with out suddenly needing to dust off your copy of Deja Vu.
While the album ends with the solid “Not Too Late,” it’s “Out Of My Head,” a snappy, hand-clappy dance track that feels like the punctuation point. That song, left off preview copies of Smoke, bursts out of the gate at full tilt and builds from there. Less folk, more pop. And, while it does manage to tuck in a reference to Dennen’s nature escape (“I went up into the mountains and climbed / I got away from the all the sadness and the static / I won’t be caught up in that anymore”), the track gets a lot of milage from the ricocheting line, “Get out of my head, get into my heart.”
If “Sweet Persuasion” raises questions about super-nice-guy Brett Dennen’s so-called hard reputation, then “Out Of My Head” is the balance with its quirky romance and feel-good bounce. It’s Dennen without any smoke and mirrors; the songwriter his fans love and want, despite what any business-minded “outside influences” might think.
DOWNLOAD: “Sweet Persuasion,” “Only Want You,” “When We Were Young”