For decades, savvy commercial advertising has ‘hijacked’ songs to sell, sell, sell and legitimize their own place in pop culture as well. Why? Because inchoate pop music has no sell-by-date, no built-in obsolescence. From Barry White (The Banana Splits) and Jefferson Airplane (Levi’s) to the Ramones (Disneyland) and Iggy Pop (Nike, Royal Caribbean), the media landscape of one-minute product placement has been shaped by an influx of rock’n’roll, funk, and soul. These sometimes mesmerizing, viral nuggets leave total strangers humming in unison for years at super-markets, subway platforms, and stoplights brimming with summertime cars. Does it neuter or taint the bands? Of course not, but it does make Nike feel a tab bit rebellious. Forget Steve Prefontaine’s goose-on-crystal-meth gait and porn moustache, it is time to “search and destroy” while donning a pair of over-priced skinny sports shoes.
Most Americans identify the Heavy solely by one tune, the ubiquitous “How You Like Me Now?”, which is the sonic wallpaper for a Kia Sorento spot featuring anthropomorphized toys (robots and stuffed animals) with a hankering for hot tubs, tattoo parlors, electric bull riding, and ‘ridin’ dirty’ in cheap import cars through the dark club and hotel-drenched City of Orgies (um, Las Vegas). The ingenious fuzz-soul romp of that tune evokes a crucible of music. Unlike the tightly manufactured neo-soul of Duffy, their point of departure is steeped in maverick Wilson Picket (the urban hip-swaying of “Funky Broadway”) and the voodoo bellowing of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell on You”) dashed with a dollop of garage-rock ruckus. No, not the Hives’ self-conscious Swedish schoolboy simulacrum, but the gutbucket groove romp of the Black Keys and the baked-in-nostalgia, meet-the-Who, we-got-soul formula of Mooney Suzuki. The song is now imprinted on millions of cerebrums, each of us entering our own fantasyland. Still, while Amy Winehouse stumbles on stage with mascara waterfalling down her pallid face, the Heavy carve out their niche beyond this song, one Ben Sherman shirt at a time.
Such pungent British soul has coughed up here and there for decades. The much applauded Northern Soul era is still considered a blessed foundation, a harbinger of all things mod to come, birthing the likes of early punk kitchen-sink gritty poets the Jam, who later decamped to more impeccable pop. Somewhat lesser heralded, but equally interesting mid-1980s acts like the Socialist-minded Redskins and wafer-thin music of Style Council (also featuring Paul Weller) melded ideological terrain and radio-friendly fare with aplomb. By the 1990s, bands like the Brand New Heavies and Stereo MCs fused urban dance mixology with hip-hop urges, and the Roots deconstructed and redefined the soul band concept as a creative overdrive crew teeming with uncontainable (even amok) mixtures for a post-modern palate. The Heavy are part of that trajectory as well, though they likely have a stronger taste for Arthur Conley and Otis Redding than Karl Marx and laptop enabled mash-ups.
EPs can be mixed-bag affairs. Typically, they feature ‘hit singles’ plus fare left off regular albums, like b-sides, demos, remixes, and live tracks. Just recall the U2 and R.E.M. EPs clogging up dollar bins at record stores. Some tracks can be titanic, some mere fodder. Luckily, How You Like Me Now? is well-endowed, featuring six cuts that don’t wither on the vine. In such a short space of time, the band’s keen variety blossoms full-fledged too. First, a new version of the title track—replete with an engine room of bursting brass (care of the Dap-Kings Horns) and more nimble, percussive drumming than the stripped down original—shoots dramatically from the starting gate. Willowy, tender Curtis Mayfield stylings are unearthed on “That Kind of Man” and “Strong Enough” (also with the horn section), evoking Shaft bedrooms throbbing with hi-fi record players and bad boy hearts. The Led Zeppelin-meets-Rage Against the Machine curlicuing funk-thunder of “Big Bad Wolf” slaps down hard, while the rambunctious rainbow racial playground claps, modern-man defining lyrics, and dense grooves of “Strong Enough” offer a loose tour-de-force.
Condensed and compact, the How You Like Me Now? EP proves the Heavy is not a token, toothless, discardable one-hit brand, but potentially iconic, given their steady diet of rooted rock’n’roll traditionalism, slabs of old soul vinyl that they upcycle with finesse (not kitsch or camp), and convincing, even shatterproof character.
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// Notes from the Road
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