The Brand New Heavies want you to sit back, relax, have a good time. You know, crank the eight-track and bask in the glow of your leopard-skin lamp. Or that's the idea, anyway. The problem with "Shelter," the fourth release from the British funksters, isn't that this invoking-the-ghosts-of-the-'70s approach doesn't work -- it's that when it comes to creating a retro vibe, the Heavies are a little too successful for their own good.
The '70s may have brought us some of James Brown's most furious funk, introduced us to Stevie Wonder's songwriting talents and unleashed the Parliament-Funkadelic mob in its vintage glory, but they also brought us disco, Barry Manilow and the power ballad. This split personality between what pleases and what cheeses has always plagued the Heavies, although they did walk away with at least a 70-30 split on their 1990 debut and 1994's "Brother Sister" (1992's "Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol.1" doesn't count: It used the trio as a backdrop for a crew of improvising rappers).
This time out, unfortunately, the group doesn't even manage to break even. Part of the problem is the group's new lineup. Where "Brother Sister" and the debut album featured the soulful wail of N'dea Davenport, "Shelter" is fronted by Siedah Garrett, fresh from working with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Quincy Jones. Garrett's résumi, unfortunately, shines through. Davenport managed to bring a level of intensity to even the Heavies' most clichid funk grooves, but Garrett manages to sterilize everything she touches. "Sometimes," which starts out with a promising bass and drums vamp, instead turns into an overblown sing-along by the time it reaches the first chorus. And the ballad-like "Stay Gone," a plea for a lover to do just that, sounds like an outtake from the King of Pop's last recording session.
Garrett's lyrics don't help things much, either. Lines like "If you conceive it, you can achieve it" from "You Are The Universe" sound contrived and forced, and sentiments like "Love is the highest high" from "Highest High" don't exactly qualify as insightful. It's no coincidence that the album's best moments come sans Garrett, in the funky instrumental "Once is Twice Enough" and in the title track, written and sung by drummer/keyboardist Jan Kincaid.
It didn't have to be this way. The Heavies have proved themselves to be masters at laying down the kinds of fat, lazy grooves most of their New Jack Swing contemporaries would kill for. But instead of pursuing the "brand new funk" they so obviously yearn to patent, they've opted to take a step back in time and grab for the brass pop-star ring. In doing so, they not only rehash the past, they come off sounding trite alongside their contemporaries. The safe and overdone "Shelter" leaves the Heavies several steps behind fellow Brits Jamiroquai, who manage to fuse their Stevie Wonder leanings with a more updated feel, and it doesn't even come close to the futuristic groove of Me'shell N'degiocello. Too bad "Shelter" didn't come out 20 years ago, and not just because it might have sounded fresh back then. If it were 1975, we could see the group done up in their fabulous retro outfits on big vinyl record-sleeve fold-outs instead of on the pages of the tiny little CD booklet. "Shelter" is a misstep, to be sure, but if the Heavies' fashion sense is any indication, they'll be back.