There is a certain amount of confusion surrounding The Brand New Heavies’ first album (also called “The Brand New Heavies”). The original release featured Jay Williamson (named Jay Ella Ruth at the time) on vocals and was released in England in 1990. It was quickly replaced by a new version with a lot of the same songs, but with the much stronger N’Dea Davenport from the US on vocals. This version of the album was released first in the US and was also used later for any re-issues of the album worldwide. This review is also based on the Davenport version, as that has become the definitive version of the album for most.
This was the first album from England’s late 80s acid jazz fad to actually connect in the US. Although popular with the rave kids in England and elsewhere, acid jazz remained a mystery in the US, with only a few big cities on the coasts picking up on its trendy mix of 60s soul jazz, 70s funk and 80s DJ music. Early English acid jazz bands such as The James Taylor Quartet were a little too exotica cute and loungey to connect with the more funkified US RnB/dance/jazz scene. The Brand New Heavies, on the other hand, carried a lot more of the street rhythms and funky grooves that made them recognizable to the Americanos.
Musically the Heavies first album is similar to what The Commodores and Kool and the Gang were playing in the late 70s, a blend of pop and funk with very dance-able rhythms, but not as down and dirty as the more hardcore early to mid-70s funk sound. Every song and every riff on here is great, but its all done with a certain cleanliness that some funk fans may find a little on the lite side. Likewise, the instrumental numbers are similar to The Brecker Brothers, but not with the same blazing bebop chops. Davenport is a great singer, but her voice lacks character and personality, she sounds like the top notch back-up singer all of a sudden promoted to lead. It all adds up, this is a good album, but it would have been tops with a little more grit and grease.
Although most of this album stays on the pop-funk vibe, “Put the Funk Back In It” slows things down for a heavy p-funk groove, while follow up song “Gimme One of Those” takes the guitar riff from Funkadelic’s “Loose Booty” and tops it with classic James Brown style synth noodling. You’ll swear you’ve heard this song before somewhere back in the 70s. Live funk bands were a rarity in 1990, and this band was a real breath of fresh air and a wake up call to other musicians that the funk was back. It also still sounds great today, although maybe not nasty enough for the hardcore funk fans.