Groove Theory – Groove Theory (1995)

Last year rumours that the original line up of one of the ’90s finest R&B outfits, Groove Theory were to reunite, tantalised the internet soul fraternity. The collaborative fruits of the impossibly attractive, not to mention talented duo of ex-Mantronix producer Bryce Wilson and bohemian songbird Amel Larrieux had been sorely missed since they first hit the scene in the mid-’90s. Besides the odd live date played in Japan, the official comeback is still to properly materialise. I, for one, wait with bated breath. The original GT might have only one studio album and a handful of soundtrack appearances to their name but it is more than enough to appreciate their singular contribution to the ’90s musical landscape.

The story goes that Larrieux and Wilson met whilst she was working as a receptionist for Rondor Music publishing company. She was an aspiring singer-songwriter and he was an already established producer looking for a new project. The two brought their collective gifts-and fantastic bone structures-together after Bryce asked Amel to write a song to one of his instrumentals. The rest, as they say, is musical history.

My first personal encounter with Groove Theory’s work, like many others, was in the summer of 1995 when their breakthrough hit ‘Tell Me’ dominated the soul and R&B airwaves. It was a great year for the genre anyway and GT helped make it so. From the moment the dirty funk of that Mary-Jane Girls bassline, the earnest, ever-so slightly melodramatic piano chords, Amel’s heartbreakingly beautiful baby-doll lead vocals and catchy chorus hit the ears, you’re captive to ‘Tell Me’s irresistible charm. Also featuring Trey ‘never quite got the recognition he deserved’ Larenz on guest vocals, Groove Theory’s classic debut single can still bring a dancefloor to its knees 16 years on.

The duo followed ‘Tell Me’ up with the equally amazing remix of ‘Baby Luv’ which sampled Slave’s ‘Just a Touch of Love’ and ‘Keep Tryin’. They appeared on the Love Jones and Sunset Park soundtracks before Larrieux left to focus on solo pursuits. In 1997 she recorded the inspirational ‘You Will Rise’ with Sweetback (Sade minus the lead singer). It was the most natural of musical alliances and the track is a highlight on the self-titled Sweetback album which also featured heavyweights such as Maxwell and long-term Sade affiliate Leroy Osbourne. Amel eventually went on to record several albums on her own although I am yet to hear one that equals Groove Theory’s eponymous 1995 release; an overlooked classic.

Creatively, and let’s face it image-wise, Wilson and Larrieux were a match made in heaven. Whilst keeping in step with the post-swing sound of their contemporaries, the duo brought a touch of old school class to their production and lyrics. Wilson and Larrieux stood apart from other US soul/R&B acts; you could even say there was a European sensibility to their music. They ushered in the transition from the Swingbeat era to that of Nu Soul (or Neo-Soul as it came to be controversially known).

Groove Theory – “10 Minute High”:

The group eschewed the unsubtle, sexually-charged lyrics of several of the R&B artists ruling the genre at the time opting for more substantial topics, much to the chagrin of Sony record label. On songs such as ’10 Minute High’, ‘Come Home’ and ‘Boy at the Window’ they grapple with social ills such as drug abuse, disadvantaged youth not fulfilling their potential and parental neglect.

Groove Theory – “Come Home”:

Reflecting on the various problems of a dysfunctional world is something that would later come to characterise Amel’s music. ‘Time Flies’ and ‘Ride’ are good, clean celebrations of friendship; songs ideal for blasting at barbeques, picnics or out of the car on long summer drives with your mates.

Groove Theory – “Time Flies”:

Whether upbeat or mellow, Groove Theory’s love songs (‘Tell Me’, ‘Hey U’, ‘Good to Me’, ‘Angel’, ‘Didja Know’) have a genuine vulnerability to them thanks to the touching candour of Larrieux’ lyrics and the fragility of her tone.

Groove Theory – “Didja Know”:

The group’s cover of the Isley Bros’ ‘Hello It’s Me’, stands out as the only track on the record to use predominantly live instrumentation. It is as good a female interpretation of one of the ’70s soul icons’ tunes as Aaliyah’s ‘At Your Best’, although it doesn’t get nearly as much attention.

Groove Theory – “Hello It’s Me”:

‘Keep Tryin’s uplifting message of perseverance could be a precursor to Sweetback’s ‘You Will Rise’. The video, a simple performance clip interspersed with footage from an inner-city American neighbourhood is a stark reminder of how comparatively innocent promos were back then. Amel’s unassuming get-up of preppy-meets-granny look jumper and knee length A-line skirt is a far cry from the default raunchy image of today’s R&B starlets. Larrieux has always been a breath of fresh air in that regards; never relying on her good looks or sexuality to get her point across.

Groove Theory is a near-flawless record. It’s of its time yet hasn’t aged a day. The only thing standing between it and perfection is the inclusion of the album version of ‘Baby Luv’ when the far superior Summer Groove remix would have served it better.

Groove Theory – “Baby Love” (Summer Groove Mix):

Wilson’s production is sensitive yet is as groove-worthy as the band’s name suggests. The then 20-year old Larrieux’ mature lyrics and vocal arrangements more than rise to the creative challenge. Then there’s Amel’s extraordinarily pretty voice; butterfly-wing delicate on one hand, strong and full of emotion on the other. I once read a bio of the group in which it was claimed Larrieux didn’t feel she fit in with the sound of other ’90s R&B singers.

She didn’t belt and abuse melisma in the same way as the Mariah Careys on the scene, neither did she really reflect the New Jill Swing vocal style. Hooray for diversity. Amel carved a niche of her own and we love her for it. To this day she remains one of the most stunningly distinctive, but sadly underrated female vocalists to emerge in the last twenty years.

Alas, as is so often the case, creative differences led Wilson and Larrieux to part ways. Bryce carried on producing for other artists such as Toni Braxton and continued Groove Theory in some incarnation but it wasn’t the same. Without wishing to romanticise the past too much, I dare say it’s the paucity of the original Groove Theory’s output that makes their one and only release (so far) that much more bitter-sweet.

Groove Theory – Groove Theory
Released: October 24, 1995
Label: Epic
Buy: iTunes US / iTunes GB / Amazon US / Amazon GB