[23 February 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Every band benefits from a well-defined sense of purpose. Even if you aren’t a big fan of the Heavy’s music, you’ve gotta love their mission. The Bath, England, quartet bash their way through classic soul, funk, and rock with a visceral, apocalyptic intensity that means to right all the musical wrongs Lenny Kravitz has committed over the past 20 years. Rarely has a band been so appropriately named. It’s all heavy with these guys. Heavy soul. Heavy funk. Heavy rock. Even the breezy folk-pop numbers and the ballads mean business.
The Heavy’s 2007 debut album, Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, featured a confident band whose sound and songwriting abilities were already formed. No need for a major overhaul on follow-up The House That Dirt Built, then. Jim Abbiss, a veteran who’s worked with Arctic Monkeys and Editors, co-produces this time around. He and the band lend a certain sharpness to the mix, and introduce the occasional beatbox rhythm, but the result is an extension and honing of the debut, rather than a departure from it.
To keep a stylistic grinder like this going, and to keep everything on the level, you need an exceptional frontman. Kelvin Swaby more than fits this bill, slinking his voice into whatever form the song demands it take, never losing its intensity. Whether he’s wailing hoarsely on the pile-driving “Oh No! Not You Again!!”, flaunting an Al Green falsetto on the effortlessly catchy soul-pop of “Short Change Hero”, or channeling Lee Mavers from the La’s on the doo-wop-era R&B of “Love Like That”, Swaby always sounds like he’s sweating, and in a good way.
Like Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, The House That Dirt Built pivots around a killer track that sets the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the album. “How You Like Me Now?” isn’t quite as smashing as “That Kind of Man” from the debut, but it’s within spitting distance. With metallic drums that POP!, a tail-wagging guitar lick, and sexed-up horns, it comes on like Prince’s “Sexy MF” with twice the testosterone.
No, nothing else quite reaches that punishing peak, but the variety of styles alone is impressive, and the Heavy aren’t exactly short on tunes. “Sixteen” tells the tale of a girl-gone-wrong, seduced by the Devil, through a demented carnival waltz, something Sly Stone might have thought up while on a bad trip. “No Time” has an urgent, Hendrix-referencing crunch, while “Long Way from Home” is stomping, psychedelic blues. The power riffing on “What You Want Me to Do?” reaches Black Sabbath-like proportions.
The revue-like feel is deliberate, with instrumental interludes and sampled bits of dialogue segueing tracks. Swaby’s firm control over the proceedings, and the consistently sharp-yet-dirty production, ensure The House That Dirt Built comes across as more than a series of genre exercises. Only the would-be reggae of “Cause for Alarm” is off the mark. And the very pretty, genuinely affecting ballad “Stuck” is plenty of proof that the Heavy’s hearts are in it, though by that point you won’t need any convincing.
At ten tracks, some of which last just over a couple of minutes, The House That Dirt Built is brief, but that brevity adds to the vintage feel and ensures every song is appreciated. Too often, bands that try to extend a well-defined sound onto a sophomore album wind up coming across half-baked. The Heavy, though, just keep bringing the flavor. “If you value your sanity, don’t go in the house”, a sampled voice warns you at the beginning of the album. If you’re looking for a thrill, though… step right in.