Ready to party again

'90s jazzy funk band The Brand New Heavies are back with their original lineup and a new album

July 06, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It was just too much too fast.

In the mid-'90s, N'dea Davenport, the focal point of the '90s jazzy funk band the Brand New Heavies, decided to walk away. The constant worldwide touring, the demands to keep pumping out hits and the desire to explore her own artistry were the chief reasons for the exit. "We didn't get a chance to catch our breath," says the sultry-voiced singer, who's calling from New York City. "It was all so overwhelming."

In the interim, Davenport released a woefully overlooked, self-titled album in 1998 while the Brand New Heavies struggled without her. Songwriter and veteran session singer Siedah Garrett replaced the Georgia-raised performer. However, Garrett's conventional voice and lack of charisma made Davenport's absence even more glaring.

But now, after a decade apart, the original lineup (Davenport, drummer-keyboardist Jan Kincaid, guitarist Simon Bartholomew and bassist-keyboardist Andrew Levy) is back together again. The new album, the excellent Get Used to It, was released two weeks ago and is the unit's first CD since 1995's Brother Sister.

The Brand New Heavies play Rams Head Live on Sunday night.

"There's much more depth and perspective now," Davenport says. "When we got together before, we were young and hadn't gone through a whirlwind experience, like touring constantly. I was very free as a solo act. Now, with the group, I have more to bring: production-wise, vocal arrangements, technical aspects."

It was Michael Ross, co-founder of the band's label, Delicious Vinyl, who initiated the reunion.

"He felt we hadn't completed our journey," Davenport adds.

Get Used to It essentially picks up where the solid Brother Sister left off. Only this time, things are a bit more streamlined. On Shelter, the lackluster 1997 album TBNH released with Garrett, the band smoothed out the grooves, eschewing the gritty experimentalism that invigorated its early sound. With Davenport back in the mix -- her pristine vocals riding on and soaring over the skin-deep grooves -- the music sounds sexier and more charged. The horns are in full swing, punching through the band's hard-hitting rhythms a la vintage James Brown.

"I was one of the heads on the monster this time," she says with a giggle. "I was very involved on this record, more so than before. It takes a little while when you're with a band or in a family for them to know what you can do."

In addition to belting behind the mike, Davenport beats the skins on the sensual banger "Sex God," one of several standouts on the 12-cut album. "That came out organically in the studio when Jan was out of the studio," the singer says of the uptempo number. "I had this idea for the lyric. It was just a jam we filled out."

The Brand New Heavies formed in 1985 in London, where the group helped refine the acid jazz scene on the city's club circuit. By the time Davenport joined the fold in 1992, the group had signed with Delicious Vinyl in the United States. The quartet's self-titled American debut, released that year, spawned three sizable R&B hits: "Dream Come True," "Stay This Way" and "Never Stop." At the time, other British soul acts -- Lisa Stansfield, Soul II Soul and Caron Wheeler, chief among them -- were sailing up the pop and R&B charts with a sleek, hip-hopped approach to classic R&B. But the Brand New Heavies unapologetically stuck to a retro sound, using real instruments including horns and strings. Its fluid, refined blend of jazz, soul and funk elements drew comparisons to legendary '70s group Rufus & Chaka Khan.

"I understand that comparison, the multicultural aspect and the intensity of the music," Davenport says. "It's definitely flattering."

But TBNH has long established its own sound, buttressed by earthy funk and glittered with shiny disco elements.

"When we're together, things just come together really fast," Davenport says. "It was like we hadn't been apart for 10 years. The music feels right, and we wanna party again."

Check out The Brand New Heavies at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, Sunday at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $28 at the door. For more information, call 410-244-1131 or visit ramsheadlive.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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