The late ’80s/early ’90s were a definite high point for UK soul. The likes of Omar, Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and Loose Ends all gained crossover success — to varying degrees — and most even managed to catch on in the notoriously hard-to-crack US market. One of the biggest names to emerge during those years was Jazzie B‘s Soul II Soul, whose blend of upbeat dance and chilled out soul saw their debut album, Club Classics Vol. One, hailed a classic. That album’s two biggest hits, “Back To Life (However Do You Want Me)” and “Keep On Movin’,” also introduced us to the woman who, despite only featuring on those two tracks and being completely absent for Vol. II, would go on to be known as the voice of Soul II Soul. That woman was Caron Wheeler.
Riding high on the success of Soul II Soul, Caron decided it was time to give the solo route a try and so, after inking a deal with EMI Records, she released her well-received debut, UK Blak, in 1990. Taking inspiration from Soul II Soul’s dance-friendly style, but with a dash of pop and R&B thrown in for good measure, the album generated Caron’s two biggest solo hits, “Livin’ In The Light” and the album’s title cut, charting at a respectable #14 in the UK. While the album remains an underground favorite, it was her 1993 sophomore set, Beach of the War Goddess, that gave us a real glimpse into what Caron was capable of as a solo artist.
Beach of the War Goddess was a real melting pot of sounds, styles and influences, showing that Caron’s airy, beautifully controlled vocals were suited to more than just dance floor friendly grooves. The short Afro-pop intro “Respect to the Motherland” gave us a glimpse of what was to come later in the album, but the first full track “In Our Love” gave a nod to her Soul II Soul roots with its mellow, laid-back lounge vibe. “I Adore You” was another mid-tempo groover with its sights set firmly on the dance floor and is probably the best showcase of Caron’s distinctive vocals, providing a honey-sweet coating to the Jam & Lewis produced track which sampled Sybil‘s ’80s hit “Don’t Make Me Over.” “I Adore You” was the song that eventually convinced me to check out Caron’s solo material, admittedly a decade and a half after it was released, and it remains one of my favorite cuts from her.
Taking things down a notch,”Soul Street” delivered another solid addition to the Wheeler repertoire with Caron, never one to shy away from addressing political and social issues, addressing the hardships faced by a young man named Nathan over a soft bed of rumbling bass and synth flourishes. While on the subject of Caron’s honest songwriting style we’d be remiss not to mention one of the album’s strongest if slightly controversial cuts, “Lite As a Feather.” Understood to be a commentary on the scourge of AIDS (although it’s not specifically named) the politically/racially charged track contains lyrics such as “The white destroyer’s on your tail/Wanting you to fail/Wearing another guise thinks he’s in control of your life” and “working hard to erase all trace of our race.” As far as I know Caron has never officially addressed the songs lyrics, so it’s left up to the listener’s own interpretation. Elsewhere on the album we were treated to Afro-tinged hip-hop (“Beach of the War Goddess”), smooth, straight-up soul (the Jazzie B produced “Wonder”), sultry slow-jams (“Do You Care”) and more undeniable mid-tempo bangers (“Gotta Give It Up”) that, while sounding somewhat dated 20 years on, still highlight one of the best vocalists to emerge from the early ’90s British scene.
In the two decades since Beach of the War Goddess was released, Caron has pretty much been MIA from the music scene, however that all changed earlier this year when she duetted with Omar on “Treat You,” taken from his latest album The Man. With rumors circulating that she is back in the studio alongside Jazzie B working on new solo material and new Soul II Soul material, it looks like Caron could be celebrating this album’s 21st birthday in style with a return to her rightful place among British soul royalty.