Although singer and songwriter Brett Dennen hasn't enjoyed quite the success of acts by other contemporary troubadours, it's not for a lack of trying. His hooky melodies and thoughtful acoustic musings are spread over five strong albums. On "Por Favor" — Dennen's sixth effort — he strips 10 new songs down to the barest essentials to create his most vulnerable and intimate recording yet.
This is a Dennen we've never heard, with a noticeably frayed spirit and a searching heart. The feeling of heightened sensitivity and the minimalist production from Nashville's Dave Cobb gives "Por Favor" more of an organic and timeless feeling than Dennen's ealier work, and his quavering high tenor sounds so appropriate to the material, according to an AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger.
During his dark hours, Dennen's breezy style and humble demeanor come off like a fallen optimist trying to find the sunshine. Light tones of calypso and reggae color tracks such as "What's the Secret?" and "Stand Up for It," and the rhythm section of drummer Chris Powell and bassist Brian Allen pepper the tunes with an off-the-cuff vibe.
Dennen's brighter moments evoke the loose, rootsy vibe of "American Beauty"-era Grateful Dead. There's even a reference to Jerry Garcia on the standout "Strawberry Road."
Recorded in just a couple of weeks at Cobb's all-analog Nashville studio, the performances are loose and honest, with tape hiss filling the gaps between chords on quieter tunes such as "Where We Left Off" and the bittersweet closer "I'll Be on Your Side." As a songwriter and a singer, Dennen sounds fragile and unpolished. It's a perfect fit for the group of songs on "Por Favor."
Dennen and his band — drummer John Radford, bassist Daniel Rhine and guitarist and pedal steel player Rich Hinman — will stop for a show Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Historic Ashland Armory, 208 Oak St., as part of Dennen's West Coast tour to promote "Por Favor." Lily & Madeleine, a songwriting duo from Indianapolis, made of up sisters Lily and Madeleine Jerkieweicz, will open the show. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and can be purchased online at www.liveatthearmory.com or Music Coop, 268 E. Main St. Tickets will be $30 the day of the show. Food and a full bar will be available. The show is open to ages 21 and older. Copies of "Por Favor" will be available at the show.
“ ‘Por favor’ was something I kept saying every day in the studio, and I got the other musicians saying it,” Dennen states on his website. “We were goofing around, and Dave Cobb, my producer, said it should be the title of my new record. I laughed it off at first, but then I really thought about it.
“When you say please, you’re asking something to come into your life,” Dennen adds. “It might mean that you’re weak and need something to make you strong. But you’re admitting to some sort of weakness or some form of humility.”
That notion is at the heart of “Por Favor,” Dennen’s revealing album released in May on Elektra Records. Producer Cobb, fresh from his Grammy-winning work with Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, strips Dennen to his core as a songwriter with nothing to hide, according to his website.
“All these songs came from a time of sadness for lots of different reasons. They came at a point when I wasn’t feeling confident about myself,” Dennen says on the site. “When I’m not feeling confident, I’m not a nice person to be around. I don’t take care of my health, my relationships, my stuff, and it all cycles into a miserable place. I also have a really hard time admitting that I’m in that place.”
"Por Favor" dives into loneliness, loss, love and all its side effects. It’s by no means a sad affair, nor is it the “rainy-day record” Dennen initially thought he was making. Often framed by uplifting choruses and bright acoustic arrangements, these songs brim with optimism, the palpable sense that the tide is turning.
There's the chugging groove on "Bonfire," and “Where We Left Off” — the album’s emotional powder keg — shows Dennen laying himself bare over the slack strum of guitar and his unvarnished vocals.
Holed up at the Nashville studio with musicians Cobb assembled, Dennen and his producer worked fast and kept the songs rough around the edges. Dennen appreciated Cobb’s insistence on capturing them in just a few takes.
“We recorded it the way people made records in the ’60s — really fast, all on analog gear, very few rehearsals,” he says.
"We didn’t second-guess ourselves," Cobb says. "We just went with it. It’s not sloppy, but it’s in that place between loose and tight and feel-good but not labored. I worked with Brett because of his beautiful balance of wit and melody. He’s very timeless in his writing, and you really can hear his personality in every note he sings. The record was made totally live, and we recorded all the vocals live with the band. It really was produced as stopped-down as possible — we tried to make every note matter."