English soul-rockers The Heavy are all about moving through the past, darkly. Their sound is a Bitch’s Brew of hip hop breakbeats, ’60s R&B, funky horns, Sticky Fingers riffs, and zombie movie sound bytes. But for their third album, they moved to Columbus, GA where they picked up more than just a few church pamphlets. They picked up a whole gospel choir.
The final product: A clutch blues-rock record. On “What Makes A Good Man?” the guitar-vocal seduction is damn palpable, and when assisted by divine Georgian gospel singers, the call-and-response refrains come on like a southern gothic opera. No doubt, Dan Auerbach will be peeling the gold off his ceiling every time it plays.
The Glorious Dead isn’t necessarily a saving grace as much as a solidifying grace for The Heavy. They gained major acclaim for their 2009 release, The House That Dirt Built. Their eclectic sampling of R&B greats with elements of hard rock and hip hop garnered the group comparisons to James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and virtually every Stax artist between 1965 and 1972. However, a revival sound – anything that requires the prefix “neo” – can be quicksand for a band intent on the long haul. Revival acts have a hard time sustaining attention.
It’s a tough pill to swallow in these nostalgic times. Music lovers are happy to wait for their musical Godots. They want a band that brings it back, whether “it” refers to late ’40s mambo (Lou Bega) or early ’80s glam rock (The Darkness) or any other incarnation embraced for a “modern spin” on a beloved genre.
Luckily, The Heavy didn’t rest on their early successes. The Glorious Dead incorporates guitar-driven hard rock, bringing the band closer to the mainstream, which happens to be full of blues nerds just like them (The Black Keys, Kings of Leon). The album has a lot to offer in the way of spooky, Shangri-lific sound effects, from a ’60s horror movie audio clip The She Beast (“Can’t Play Dead”) to bells, claps, and carnival horns (“Blood Dirt Love Soup”).
On the blues symphony, “Same Ol,’” the violins have a bad case of cat scratch fever and lead singer Kelvin Swaby shows off his vocal fly-fishing. He drops plenty of grunts and yelps along the way, like leaving a trail of James Brown breadcrumbs. It works, because he doesn’t sound lost for a second. The only time Swaby ever stops for pause is on the lilting “Curse Me Good,” where he warbles something only Jagger would ask: “Do you kiss your mother with a mouth like that?”
There is one particular voice whose presence is unmistakable on this album: Amy Winehouse. Listening to the intro of “Be Mine” is like walking into Winehouse’s bedroom and seeing the rumpled sheets, the open lipstick tubes, but no woman in sight. After all, The Heavy worked with Brooklyn’s soul doctors and former Winehouse collaborator the Dap-Kings on about half the songs here, including “Be Mine.” Winehouse’s music made the past sound relevant and her contribution fully informs The Heavy’s work. Over a wash of strings, “Be Mine” delivers something of a belated Valentine to the late singer. What better way to honor the glorious dead?
Essential tracks: “What Makes A Good Man?”, “Curse Me Good”