San Diego’s The Heavy Guilt is in many ways a second chance for Alfred Howard and Josh Rice, erstwhile members of the now defunct—or more fittingly, de-funked—Alfred Howard and the K23 Orchestra. After nearly a decade of touring, the ailing vocal chords of the band’s spoken word front man, Howard, brought the six-piece to a loud silence. Undeterred, he and “Instant” Rice set out searching the virtual countryside of K23’s fan base – via an e-blast – for a vocalist who could reignite the duo’s musical aspirations, and give life to their over 500 pages of lyrics. Enter Erik Canzonar. But what was created turned out to be a wholly different sonic experience then their former funk-soul-rock incarnation, with that transformation chronicled in this, their first release.
Many of the songs on Lift Us Up From This prove to be of a serious ilk: lyrics cover loss of some sort or another and the backing band doesn’t so much play, as claw at you. Album opener “Clove” slinks from speakers in a sultry, morosely waltz-like meander, as Canzona’s grit-laden voice reminisces on love with words gasped, as if suffocating, “She’s a thorn in your side, hard to pull, have to try.” Canzona’s pontifications again offer ambiguous hope as he asserts, “So we all get used to disaster,” on “Let This Daylight.” As if to further exasperate the sullen mood, The Heavy Guilt’s vocals are now buoyed by stark acoustic and serrated electric guitars, with the bouncy low-end at the core of K23’s funk-heavy, spoken poetics altogether removed – a clear signaling of their new Tom-Waits-meets-Wilco direction.
Though these songs are good in many regards, they also careen listeners towards serious, even glum vibes. That would be fine in measure, but the heavy concentration of so much muted energy throughout the first half of the album is a perplexing choice in that it threatens to ground the project before it even takes off. Indeed, if not for Sean Martin’s shimmering guitar riffs on “Heavier Than Mist,” many listeners might give up prematurely, feeling it’s all a bit too gloomy. That would be a shame because there truly are a cadre of elevating gems on this album that prove worthy of its lofty title. “On My Deck,” “Quill,” and “Home” display a depth in songwriting of folks-men like Nathan Moore and Bob Dylan who, despite their pull-no-punches, topical lyrics, are able to eschew defeatist leanings for an ultimately hopeful experience. “No Ceremony” is reminiscent of Langhorne Slim’s “Diamonds and Gold,” in its easy swagger and good vibrations, and given a chance, this, or any of these uplifting numbers could easily become mug-raising classics.
This album mainly suffers from logistical missteps: a top heavy balance and some areas of flat recording – the signature of a truly independent release. Yes, more diversity evenly peppered throughout could have gone a long way, but, regardless, it’s clear that these guys are on to something here. Taken alone, their songs display some true talent, with good musicianship – particularly J Smart’s tasteful drumming – and good song writing that strives to appeal to the softer side of your gray matter. After listening to Lift Us Up From This, particularly those tunes that actually, you know, lift us up from this, your interest is undeniably piqued. And with a bit more time understanding the fine-workings of their new vehicle, The Heavy Guilt could churn out something that’s truly compelling. This project, on its own merits, is a good first effort from a promising new band with what appears to be a bright future.