With Joss Stone and Natasha Bedingfield currently thriving with their light R&B and the likes of Jamie Cullum and Katie Melua serving up innocuous swing-based easy listening, it seems that smooth acid jazz soulsters the Brand New Heavies have timed their comeback to perfection.
Pioneering a scene that also brought Jamiroquai, Galliano and Incognito to the fore, they enjoyed a string of hits in the nineties including Dream On Dreamer, Back To Love and Midnight At The Oasis but have kept a somewhat low profile since the turn of the century. But now Andrew Love Levy, Simon Bartholomew and Jan Kincaid are back with a new record deal, new singer Nicole Russo, and a new album in the form of Allaboutthefunk.
So is this more of the same melding of funk, jazz and soul they made their name with and gave them the platinum success of Brother Sister a decade ago? The short answer is “Yes”, but when you hit upon a winning formula why deviate too far from it? Current single Boogie opens things up and the clear difference between this and earlier material is Russo’s voice, much more demanding of attention than say, ex-vocalist N’Dea Davenport’s silky tones were and falling somewhere midway between Ms Bedingfield and Lauryn Hill.
She also adds some attitude to proceedings, the hurt-by-love emotional exorcisms of Waste My Time and What Do You Take Me For? in particular, but that said, the trademark positivity of the past is never far away. Keep On Shining is especially buoyant in mood with its love-struck lyrics, optimistic male vocal and bright tinkling keys hinting at classic Stevie Wonder.
Another highlight is the attack on the virtue-free corporate music machine in Need Some More with its violin hook, soprano bursts and hip hop beat backed up by disillusioned lyrics like: “Love’s almost gone from the industry where we belong / But your appreciation keeps us strong”. This perhaps forms a brief moment of catharsis in relation to being dropped by their previous record label and is one of the strongest tracks on the album.
A stripped down cover of Many Rivers To Cross, however, lacks the intensity and immediacy of Jimmy Cliff‘s original and never really gets going, turning instead into an uneventful slow-paced swinger. The album closes with a couple of fun but throwaway floor-fillers. Every Time We Turn It Up with its dirty guitar and meaningless party startin’ lyrics and the Minnie The Moocher meets The Fugees stomp of How We Do This round things off in a light but slightly insubstantial way.
Almost every track on Allaboutthefunk is, as expected, imbued with funky wah-wah guitar and deep bass grooves with a touch of the seventies, some hip hop and even disco thrown in to maintain interest. But while this is all very nice, some may try to dismiss it as mere coffee table music for middle aged men in suits driving home from work in their Ford Mondeos, the Bland New Heavies if you like. But to say that is missing the point.
Yes, this is unchallenging, uncomplicated, soulful music with a heavy funk influence and is as inoffensive as an episode of Last Of The Summer Wine, but that is exactly what it is meant to be: sweet sunshine soul for kicking back and relaxing to. In spite of their new-found attitude roughening things around the edges slightly, the result is still not quite brand new, but it certainly ain’t heavy either.