The Heavy are one of those rare acts that have a song that’s far better known than the band itself. Over the last decade ‘How You Like Me Now?’ has featured in countless TV shows, games and ads, as well as appearing in almost as many movies as the MGM lion.
The song is so ubiquitous that it risks overshadowing the band’s more recent material and consigning them to the one-hit wonder status of the likes of the Rembrandts and Norman Greenbaum.
With the release of ‘Sons’, their fifth album, they may be able to avoid such a fate. Several of its eleven tracks replicate the massive cinematic sound of ‘How You Like Me Now?’ and some are of a high enough quality to match its frequent use in mass media.
You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Sons’ is the work of some obscure 1970s group from one of the grittier neighbourhoods of Memphis or Detroit. In fact The Heavy formed in 2007 in Bath, a picturesque city not renowned as a hotbed of funk and soul.
The band’s sound is unashamedly retro, with James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton obvious influences. But they bring enough fresh ideas to the table to avoid accusations of plagiarism.
They signal their intent with opening track ‘Heavy For You’. It’s a brawny hybrid of rock and soul that swaggers and stomps its way through three breathless minutes. Out of all the songs on the album, it’s the one that most closely resembles ‘How You Like Me Now?’, and it’s easy to imagine it soundtracking everything from boxing movie montages to cider ads.
The band ease up a little for the next two songs, but the quality remains high. It’s hard to believe ‘The Thief’ isn’t a cover of a forgotten Stax gem. The similarly infectious ‘Better As One’ is a brassy number complete with spidery basslines and crazed screeches worthy of James Brown.
They’re both prime examples of the power and versatility of Kelvin Swaby’s vocals. Blessed with great range, he’s able to swing between the sweet and breathy style of Marvin Gaye to a huge raspy blare reminiscent of Edwin Starr.
‘Fighting For the Same Thing’ is a passionate plea for unity that rivals ‘Heavy For You’ as the album’s catchiest song. In keeping with the rest of the album, its lyrics are heartfelt without being particularly memorable or original.
The odd track out is ‘Simple Things’, which has a 1980s disco-funk sound akin to groups such as Shalamar. The squidgy basslines and drum machine are undeniably cheesy, to the degree that you suspect the track is a deliberate parody. Its inclusion is jarring, but due to its sense of fun, it’s not unwelcome.
‘What Don’t Kill You’ has a Latin vibe and clear cinematic potential. It’s the kind of song you expect to hear played over a Mexican barroom scene just before the shooting starts. At one point it threatens to turn into Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’, signalling the breadth of the band’s influences.
The album closes with ‘Burn Bright’, a gospel-tinged slab of late-night soul. Female backing singers, rumbling guitars and Morricone-style trumpets lend the track gravitas and end the album on a high note.
With most of the songs hovering around the three-minute mark, they don’t outstay their welcome. This is an album of lean, punchy songs packed full of hooks, sweat and grit.
‘Sons’ won’t convert the doubters who consider The Heavy an irrelevant throwback more interested in music’s past than its future. But for the rest of us, there’s a lot here to get excited about.
If you liked The Heavy before, you’ll love them now.
‘Sons’ is out now via BMG Rights Management