“I gotta keep my pace/ so I can’t slow down,” Phil Simpkin offers at the start of Beam of Light (Dub Rockers, 2017). “I keep hustling, hustling, hustling/ daily.” No doubt, The Simpkin Project- hailing from Huntington Beach, CA- have put their time in and continue to push their music forward. This is because a) they’re an independent contemporary reggae band, and b) their mix of Southern blues-rock and reggae is unconventional. But no one is quite able to pull off this sound like SP. As for Beam of Light, it’s wonderful.
Many of these songs have a timeless quality to them, and to share their influences they provide a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”, which they make wholly their own, probably because this lyrical style and song construction is similar to their own catalogue. In fact, if you didn’t know it was a cover, you’d probably never guess. Part of the awesomeness is the ripping guitar solo towards the end. Guitar, after all, is where Simpkin makes his mark. The band makes pop-focused, catchy anthems (ala Blues Traveler, I’d say), but where John Popper has his harmonica, SP has Phil’s guitar.
Many of the tracks have the timeless essence Cliff pulled off decades ago. Notably, “Passion” just thunders through with gorgeous-yet-simple lyrics: “Write with pain/ Write with loving… You will never know/unless you try.” The cascading builds and falls match some of reggae’s most important songs. “I’ll Be There” keeps that vibe going, and instrumentally it’s dynamite (horns aplenty), but the words are less than original: “I’ll be there/ rain or shine.” The pit is ripe but the fruit isn’t quite as edible.
Needless to say, Simpkin’s bluesy, loud voice can take mediocre words and fill them like a balloon taught with emotional helium. Yet at other times, the lyrics hold their own; “The World’s On Your Shoulders” comes to mind. Not only do the rhythm and lead guitars work fondly together, but: “Children…Land of your fathers/ and yours to take over… There’s so much that’s been set in place/ before I came to be.” It’s a call to youth, a meditation of past errors, and a humbling acceptance of how much one person can do.
The key track is “Some Things Don’t Change”. This song has already worn out my speakers. The ferocious guitar, fluid horns, and lines like, “Exotic tastes in/ far off places/ don’t suit me at all” just sum up what SP is all about. And props to Sean Kennedy on the drums; he is the not-so-secret weapon. The persistent kicks on “Some Things” is probably where I got that Blues Traveler reference earlier. This song zings and spirals up into a guitar solo and backing “oohs” that are highly replay-able.
A fan favorite from live shows, and where the album gets its name, finally appears in studio version here. This is another excellent song. “Lo and behold,” it begins; “In everyone there is a beam of light.” The simple progression and lyrics, the call-and-response, and the harmonies make for a damn-near perfect reggae song.
On the more critical side, “Perfect Harmony” is very cheesy, as is “It’s Only Nothing” (although, once again, the band could give soul to the most lifeless songs). And that’s really it. The CD version of the album is beautifully designed, complete with a lyrics booklet (few and far between these days).
The Simpkin Project pulls off another set of songs that sounds unique and familiar all at once.