Paul Hardcastle's greatest strength? Consistency. Paul Hardcastle's greatest weakness? Also consistency. Before you applaud or boo Hardcastle you must admit this: the man knows what he does best and he is not about to stop doing it based on what critics say when his global audience tells him that's exactly the way they like it.
There is essentially no difference between Hardcastle's solo and his Jazzmasters releases. The same musicians appear on both. The music is interchangeable as well. Even the album covers have similar generic art of sunsets, waterfalls and dreamy-eyed models deep in reflection.
Is it formulaic? Yes, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. He delivers what his fans want: consistency and professionalism. Hardcastle is still a one-man band weaving smooth jazz and chill with a gutsier version of New Age soundscapes mashed up with electronic beats, airy wordless vocals, bubbling keyboards and silky saxophones riffs. This sort of workmanlike approach goes against the grain of the jazz aficionado, but that's probably not Hardcastle's target demographic anyway.
That doesn't mean Hardcastle is averse to incorporating a few variations on his successful theme. On VII he goes long; as in 11 minutes long on the lead-off "The Truth (Shall Set You Free)" and a few other tracks blow past the six and seven-minute mark. Everything you would expect from Hardcastle is here. The beats, the vocals, the keyboard, the sax and that ever-present mood of dreamily lying in the grass staring up at the clouds as they roll by is here.
Where "The Truth (Shall Set You Free)" goes beyond expectation is it is a song suite without being called one, as it changes in subtle shifts and displays a greater than usual degree of innovation and complexity. Hardcastle layers the instrumentation and vocals with a change-up near the 8:00 minute mark. If it never quite achieves grandiosity, "The Truth (Shall Set You Free)" is proof Hardcastle is willing to push himself from time to time.
Nothing else on VII aspires to that level of ambition, though "No Stress At All" is admittingly inspired by the Kool and the Gang's "Summer Madness" it has some fine moments. The remainer of the album is the usual indistinct soundscapes.
Hardcastle may never have another big hit like "19" or "Rain Forest" in his repertoire, but maybe he doesn't need one as long as he keeps his devoted following happy even as his continued popularity baffles his critics.
Track Listing: The Truth (Shall Set You Free); No Stress At All; Summer Love; Crystal Whisper; Easy Street; Dance of the Wind; Apache Warrior; Stepping On Shadows; Love Is A Power; The Truth (Shall Set You Free) Reprise
Personnel: Paul Hardcastle: keyboards, programming, unspecified instrumentation; Rock Hendricks: saxophones; Maxine Hardcastle: lead and backing vocals; Paul Hardcastle, Jr. : unspecified instruments; Helen Rogers: vocal samples, Mark Hasselbach: trumpet (2, 7)