From the Y Crate: Bill Wolfer

From the Y Crate, #16:
“Wolf” by BILL WOLFER (Solar/Constellation)

Yet another lost ‘blue-eyed soul’ offering. Wolf is one of my favourite 80s soul albums – which is ironic, because I only discovered it in the 90s. I came to Bill Wolfer via the singer Jon Gibson (yep – more blue-eyed soul) and I can still remember the look of absolute shock on Jon’s face when I interviewed him and mentioned to him that I owned a copy of Wolf.

The story behind the album goes something like this. It was the early 80s, and Solar Records (the label that gave us Shalamar) had high hopes for two white acts they’d signed. In the red corner was Jon Gibson – a very soulful singer whose voice bore an eerie resemblance to that of Stevie Wonder (whom he had worked with on and off). In the blue corner was our man Bill – a master session keyboardist whose work could be heard on some of Motown’s best albums. Hall and Oates were making a killing on the charts around this time, and someone at Solar had a bright idea: why not put these two guys together and we can have our own Hall & Oates? (Stop laughing. This is the music industry we’re talking about, and you want original ideas?).

Thankfully, that idea got vetoed, and the two acts released solo albums instead. Bill produced Jon Gibson’s Standing on the One; Jon did lead vocals on a few tracks on Bill’s Wolf. Bill was able to pull in a few stellar names to appear on Wolf. Stevie Wonder‘s harmonica playing on “Soaring” is simply awesome (as is Crystal Blake’s vocal). And if you listen very closely to “So Shy”, you just might be able to pick out Michael Jackson‘s voice in the chorus (the album was recorded at around the same time Michael was working on Thriller, and Bill had previously toured with the Jacksons and played on their Triumph album). You can also just about hear him on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – one of two tracks on which Bill does lead vocal in a Herbie Hancock vocoder stylee (another case of “shy keyboardist syndrome”, I wonder?).

Bill went on to produce Shalamar’s hit “Dancing in the Sheets”. He also worked with Vanity and produced some of Jon Gibson’s Christian music offerings. I’m told that he’s making Latin jazz these days. That I must investigate…

From the Y Crate: Remy Shand

From the Y Crate, #15:
remy“The Way I Feel” by REMY SHAND (Motown)

This is one of my favourite soul albums of the past 10 years… and the guy responsible for it seems to have vanished without a trace! Clearly I’m not the only person who misses Remy; the What Happen to Remy Shand? (sic) Facebook group has 615 members. And I still haven’t quite figured the ins and outs of how Twitter works, but the fact that @WheresRemyShand? could find and follow me says a lot.

The first track I heard off this album was “Take a Message”. It was 2001; I was in a hotel room in Nashville, and had dozed off in the middle of a documentary about Tupac and Biggie on VH1. The next thing I recall was hearing a sound so awesome, I had to open my eyes and see where it was coming from. Even though I was watching the telly half asleep (or is that half awake? I guess it depends on how optimistic you are), I could tell that all the members of the band in the video I was seeing were the same person. I was also positive that the song I was hearing was one of the most beautiful I’d ever heard. When I’d fully woken up a couple of hours later, I googled the only two words I could remember from my new discovery: “Remy” and “Motown” (mostly to prove to myself that I hadn’t just dreamt the whole episode).

I eventually found a copy of the album, and several tracks from it became firm favourites. “Take A Message” and the psychedelic soul jam “Liberate” are on my iPod’s “Top 25 Most Played” playlist (I’m not going to argue with iTunes; if it says I like them that much, then obviously I do). “The Colour of Day”, “I met Your Mercy”, “Everlasting” – lovely tunes all. And the title track, of course…

If we’re doing the lazy, easy comparison thing, you could call Remy the Canadian Lewis Taylor. But whereas Lewis released half a dozen albums before calling it a day, Remy fell out of sight after just one. A couple of gigs were scheduled to take place at the Jazz Café in 2002; I turned up at the box office to buy a ticket, only to be told the gigs were off. And that was it. Eventually the website went, and now all we have left is a handful of Youtube clips – including a couple purportedly of tracks from a new album (they’re actually bonus tracks that appeared on the UK version of The Way I Feel, but not the US version).

Seriously, someone needs to find this guy and get him out of hiding. Give him whatever he wants and get at least one more album out of him.

From the Y Crate: Elisha La’Verne

From the Y Crate, #14:
“I May Be Single” by ELISHA LAVERNE (Avex)

In the mid-90s, I was a music writer for the black arts mag Artrage. During this time, I witnessed a strange phenomenon: loads of British artists – the kind we’d use the ‘urban’ tag on today – were scoring huge success in Japan while they couldn’t get arrested back home. Some (such as CJ Lewis or Louchie Lou & Michie One) had had limited chart success in the UK, but most of them simply never registered on the radar.

Elisha fell into the latter category. When this came out in 1997, this Sarf London girl was the toast of Tokyo, with her face on several Japanese magazine covers. I remember interviewing her at the time and wondering how disconcerting it must be to be a household name thousands of miles away from home, yet virtually unknown in your own backyard. With this song, Elisha did the “I’m not a pathetic loner just because I haven’t got a man” thing years before Natasha Bedingfield debuted with “Single”. The guitar work on the remix is particularly sweet.

From the Y Crate: Unklejam

From the Y Crate,unklejam cd #13:
“Unklejam” by UNKLEJAM (Virgin)

Here’s another made-up music genre for you: ‘Electrosoul’. Take equal parts James Brown, Cameo, Prince and Imagination, throw in a handful of 80s synth-pop, give it a good shake and name the concoction after a George Clinton record. Et voila – Unklejam!

In a previous life, Bobby Joel Stearns had been a member of the ironically named Christian band thebandwithnoname. Towards the tail end of 2006, word started to spread that he’d linked up with two other singers – Adonistar and Tyson – to form Unklejam. “Love Ya”, Unklejam’s debut single, was released early in 2007.

Critics could argue that “Love Ya” was just an over-the-top swagger, and they’d be right. But it was a brilliant over-the-top swagger! There was no way you could ignore it; bold, loud and with all the subtlety of a JCB, never has a band announced its entry into the music scene with more cockiness. That year, the guys worked their butts off, supporting Nelly Furtado, John Legend and Justin Timberlake on their UK tours. In between those gigs, they released two more singles: “What am I Fighting For?” and “Stereo”.

So what went wrong?

Frankly, I haven’t a clue. I knew something was amiss when the album’s release date kept changing. As far as I know, it never did get a proper UK release; the lucky few who did manage to get their hands on copies are asking for silly money for them on Amazon (fortunately, I didn’t have to shell out too much for the one I bought).

The more I listen to the album, the more baffled I am as to why Virgin chose to sit on it. The three singles are there in their glory, along with another could-have-been hit,“Go”. For those who may have found the band’s brashness a bit much, they showed us their mellow, sensitive side on “Don’t Pass Me By”, “Cry” and “Daddy’s Genes”.

Unklejam may have disappeared, but their presence can still be felt here and there. A certain McDonald’s I used to frequent always seemed to have “Love Ya” on its PA system whenever I was in it. And the other day, I heard it in the background on one of those “young man who’s hopeless around women tries desperately hard to get a girlfriend” comedies on Channel 4. The videos for the three singles can easily be found on Youtube, along with a few of them performing the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” live (one of the best covers of that song that I’ve heard – and I’ve heard a few). Here’s hoping they don’t stay hidden too long.

From the Y Crate: Beats International

From the Y Crate, #12:
beatsint“The Sun Doesn’t Shine” by BEATS INTERNATIONAL (Go! Discs)

Norman Cook has recorded under many monikers in his long career – more successfully under some than others. Somewhere between Fatboy Slim and Freak Power, he released a couple of singles as Beats International. The wrong one became a huge hit. Well, to me, anyway. I never cared much for “Dub Be Good to Me” (never liked the SOS Band’s original much, either). But I did love this lickle reggae tune he released after it. Shame nobody else did…

From the Y Crate: 4th Avenue Jones

From the Y Crate, #11:

4thavenuejones“Stereo: the Evolution of Hiprocksoul” by 4TH AVENUE JONES (Gotee)

For my money, the best music genres are the totally made-up ones (Gutter Wonkstep, anyone?). And just that is what makes this neglected gem of an album so special. It ain’t hip hop; it ain’t soul; it ain’t rock – IT’S ALL THREE!!

Ahmad Jones, his wife Tena and their merry band of very fine musicians and rappers were another group which never really fitted into the ‘Christian band’ mould, but somehow felt compelled to stay there. A shame, really; their take on how things go when relationships get messy was sparky and often hilarious – and needed to be heard by more people. Last I heard, they’d disbanded (more’s the pity). Still, if you hadn’t discovered them before, Youtube has quite a lot of stuff to pique your interest…

From the Y Crate: The Dan Reed Network

From the Y Crate, #10:

drnetwork“Rainbow Child” by THE DAN REED NETWORK (Mercury)

London in the 80s was a lonely place to be if you were a black guy who liked rock music. But as the decade drew to a close, three bands emerged that made that lonely guy hold his head up high. There was Roachford, there was Living Colour… and to a lesser degree, there was the Dan Reed Network: what you’d get if you took those “United Colours of Benetton” ads from that era and added guitars with lots of distortion. This was the single that should’ve kickstarted a glittering chart career for them, but somehow didn’t.

The last I heard, Dan Reed was still making music, collaborating with Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme (another inhabitant of this here crate…).

From the Y Crate: Playgroup

From the Y Crate, #9:
playgroup1“Number One” by PLAYGROUP (Source)

I don’t know if the events are linked, or if it’s just a mad coincidence – but every time I drive my sister’s car and put XFM on, I hear a tune for the first time and it completely blows me away. I can remember dropping her off at Heathrow and hitting the M4 to the sound of Richard Ashcroft’s “Check the Meaning”. Biiiig tune!! (and not in the Y Crate because it was a hit, of course). Then there was the other occasion where I was driving somewhere in south London and this came on. Took me all the way back to the 80s, it did…

If you can remember the Eddy Grant tune “Walking on Sunshine” (or better still, the cover version by Rocker’s Revenge), you’ll have some idea of what this sounds like – then out of nowhere, in comes Edwin Collins (of Orange Juice and “Never met a girl like you before” fame) with a blistering guitar solo. A nicer slice of retro Brit-funk you’ll never find. I can’t say the So Solid Crew’s remix of it does much for me, though…

From the Y Crate: Seeed

From the Y Crate, #8:

seeedrelease“Release” by SEEED (WEA)

 Berlin-based eleven-piece dancehall massive Seeed are one of my favourite Reggae acts of recent years; the fact that most of their songs are in German could be the reason why they’re not that well known in the UK. Having said that, each time they have played here, they’ve gone down really well. Their Glastonbury gigs a couple of years ago got rave reviews (please don’t tell Noel Gallagher that they’ve had ragga at Glasto; he’ll probably have a heart attack). And when they played east London’s Cargo as part of the amusingly named Fertiliser Festival, demand to see them was so high I spent half the duration of the gig in a long queue outside the venue, chatting with some very friendly Germans. Good times…

 “Release” isn’t my all-time favourite Seeed track (that honour goes to the first song of theirs that I heard: “Dickes B”, their ode to their home town). But it is the first one of theirs I heard that was entirely in English (well, patois actually. But that’s close enough). Its rhythm track borrows heavily – and quite cleverly – from the Cure’s “Close to Me”. 

From the Y Crate: Nash

From the Y Crate, #7: 

nashchancer“The Chancer” by NASH (Go Beat)                

 If you’re an Ali G fan, you’ll probably remember ‘Tha 4orce’, the house DJ on Da Ali G Show. What you probably wouldn’t be aware of is that he was in a band responsible for one of the funkiest (yet sadly overlooked) British albums from the beginning of the new millennium. Tha 4orce – Steve Ellington to his bank manager – did turntable duties for Nash, an eclectic London four-piece led by multi-instrumentalist Russell Nash.

 I was on a Swissair flight to Atlanta in the spring of 2000, and became quite taken with a song called “100 Million Ways” played on one of the plane’s audio channels. Its stop-start guitar groove (not too dissimilar to Madonna’s “Don’t Tell me”) just grabbed you the moment you heard it. After the song ended, the DJ mentioned that it was by a new British group. The moment I got back to Blighty, I tried to track it down.

 I never heard from Nash again until a few years later, when I was rummaging through the shelves of a budget CD shop that had opened on East Street Market and happened upon this – their debut (and only) album. Several tracks off it have since become favourites of mine: “Black Box” with its ‘go on, take the plunge – what’s the worst that can happen?’ message; the jaunty, string-laden “Just A Little Sign”; the defiant “I Don’t Care”, and the dark, moody reprise of “100 Million Ways” that closes the album.