S J Denney is an Essex-based singer-songwriter. He performs folk music with an indie edge. Forgotten Friends is his latest EP, reviewed here by author, friend and long-time fan, Mark Cundy.
This new collection of songs brings together the best elements of S J’s Britpop and American songbook influences. What’s especially thrilling is how it draws on and refines his own style too.
There is a confidence to open the EP with the moderately paced Here I Am. The song starts with a beautifully blended acoustic undercurrent and electric hook, underpinned by drums and bass outriders that subtly insist on your attention. Added to the standard sounds is a delightful cello, superbly played by Louise Dearsley. The weaving sympathy of the strings softens the harsher edges of this tough love lesson. And the emotional high point of the track is scored with a perfectly placed trumpet break from Rus Rogers.
(Feels Like I’m…) Hearing Things takes us out of the inward tensions of personal relationships and looks at the wider world. There is turmoil out there, which every screaming headline tells us daily. This track catches the mood. There is a notion of helplessness – but not hopelessness. Political paralysis often leads to social tensions and this is truly a song for our times.
All the Signs Were There provides a welcome change of pace. Breezy is not what you normally expect from this measured and driven artist, but it works. There’s no mistaking the attention to detail, great arrangement and polished delivery throughout this Beatles-inspired track. From the opening bars of bright acoustic guitars, the bass and drums irresistibly invite the listener to hitch onto this upbeat groove. When Denney’s voice joins the party, he’s the cheerleader for a determinedly optimistic ride.
What follows, is a remarkable vignette of a track. Forgotten Friends clocks in at 97 seconds, but conveys so much in a dual delivery of quiet compassion and heart wrenching pleading. If that sounds depressing, it certainly isn’t. S J’s voice breaks new ground as he softly broaches feelings so delicate, matters so deeply rooted that he knows he needs to tread gently. It’s evocative of Springsteen at his most tender and Costello at his warmest.
The Good Times changes the pace again. A bad relationship flashes before our eyes as a relentlessly downbeat missive is fired across the wreckage. There’s still a hand reaching out, but with no anticipation of reconciliation. The sparse use of acoustic, deftly deployed bass and percussion keeps the mood intact throughout. This track reemphasises the theme of lessons learnt, with older and wiser perspectives reigning.
Next up is Where Darkness Hides, which is a joyful homage to The Smiths. This elegant arrangement, beautifully played by Denney and the assembled musicians provides the platform for a tale of two souls that will never settle into blissful coexistence, but who would be diminished without each other. Once again Roisin O’Hagan joins him on vocals and lifts the bittersweet tune to its emotional high.
A Fond Farewell brings the EP to a close. And just as Here I Am had to be the opener, this is the natural finale. The music is a delight, with chord sequences that allow the piano, trumpet and bass to stretch out and provide a jazzy improv quality. You could imagine this as a 12-minute set piece at Ronnie Scott’s or at a Sunday club in New Orleans. The echoing outro harmonies and clever word play carry the quality right to the last beat. This is an arrangement that could only be written by someone who loves ‘the Fab Four’.
By surrounding himself with musicians of the same quality, S J has delivered another career-high release. The foundations of each track were recorded live and click-free, providing an extra dynamic that is often lacking from modern-day recordings. This time in the studio has been spent putting together something that effortlessly rises above what has gone before. We are now hearing the authentic voice of this highly talented singer-songwriter.
‘He’s got the edge that can rarely be captured on stage. S J Denney’s music is meant to be in the spotlight and will only move forward from here on out.’ – LIVAMP
‘I can definitely hear how Noel Gallagher has been a major influence, but S J still makes his music his own. The details within his writing definitely make his music stand out; especially with his vocal style.’ – My Random Jukebox
‘S J is someone who has always had a great way with words and knows how to craft details in his stories to grab the listener’s attention. But a story is only as good as its narrator, and his voice compliments his words perfectly.’ – The Appetizer Radio Show