In a way Shalamar an odd group because essentially they are as manufactured as any of the manufactured pop groups you can think of but as time went on they developed a chemistry and status within the R&B and Disco scene that can be seen as quite credible.
The reason for this must be the quality of artist the group had with Howard Hewitt, Jody Watley and Jeffery Daniels all bringing something to the table that would make any group better or be a foundation for a solo career.
This was the 5th album in the Shalamar discography but is by far the most popular where the bulk of their greatest hits lie. The concern with any album like this is that with big recognizable chart hits (4 of the 10 on here) the rest of the album is just window dressing to legitimise making a full album but I am please that in the main that is not the case here and some of the album tracks would stand up well on their own.
The album begins with the biggest hit the group have had: “A Night To Remember”. Even if you are unaware of who Shalamar are I doubt you have failed to come across this song in your lifetime. It’s a disco standard that is still played on many radio stations in the UK today. It’s the groups signature track which is led by a guitar riff at the start which is very recognizable.
The song is simply produced with the drum programming and bass sounding rich and smooth. It’s a song which gives Watley the chance to shine in the first verse, but it’s made even better when Hewitt takes control of the song with his underrated vocal display.
“Don’t Try To Change Me” is a track that could have easily been a single although a tad generic in the disco/funk scene of the time. Without knowing I doubt even the most ardent soul fan could identify that it was a Shalamar track with Watley delivering a solid if unspectacular vocal.
The songs message is clear from the title and is all very run of the mill but not unpleasant.
“Help Me” was released as a single in the U.S and is very melodic as Hewitt gets his first chance to be the lead on a track. It’s instrumental is tight and well-presented but at over 5 minutes it soon seems to drag and is a little bit dreary.
“On Top Of The World” is like a mix of a number of tracks on here as it attempts to recreate that guitar riff basis that “A Night To Remember” began with. In fact, it follows a very similar melodic structure without being as memorable on the hook but there is something about the overall feel of this track that I find enjoyable.
It just flows well, and the bass and drums yet again marry up perfectly with Hewitt again taking up lead vocals. His voice is one I believe should be talked about among the greats in soul music, but he just never had the solo material to really put himself in the frame to be discussed like that.
“I Don’t Wanna Be The Last To Know” sounds like a track that was more suited to the late 80’s early 90’s in the simple drum machine instrumental which leans on the vocalists to drive the song forward which Watley and Hewitt do with ease. The problem for me is that it’s a pretty boring track which loses its way on the bridge where I am not convinced Hewitt is really into singing.
But the whole sound on this song is ahead of it’s time and worth checking out this early incarnation of a 90’s sounding R&B track.
The title track “Friends” is utterly superb. The bassline is outrageously good and this is just a brilliantly crafted pop song. It’s so melodic and soulful I can’t help but feel something within my bones when I hear Hewitt smash this song out of the water. A superb message, exceptional delivery and one of the most underrated songs from the 1980’s.
“Playing To Win” is a song that before this review I had never heard before. It’s a surprise to hear Jeffery Daniels get his chance to shine as lead vocalist. It’s a real funk frenzy that does sound a little dated in some of the techniques used on production. Daniel’s offers a decent if again unspectacular performance (it could really be anyone). It’s a decent track though that will certainly make you move.
“I Just Stopped By Because I Had To” slows things down and is a real hidden gem off “Friends”. Hewitt is at his best because he has such an emotive voice which I have always loved and always considered “This Is For The Lover In You” as his shining moment but I believe this song can get close to matching it with such a gorgeous vocal performance.
My favourite song on the album and my favourite Shalamar song of all time is “There It Is”. This song means a lot to me as my Dad would always play it when I was younger and is one of the first soul songs I think I really fell in love with. That melody and that vocal from Hewitt still gives me goosebumps today and I think “There It Is” is a magnificent song.
The final track on “Friends” was another massive hit for Shalamar – “I Can Make You Feel Good”. I would say this is the 2nd most played Shalamar song on the airwaves even today with it’s breezy verses and memorable chorus. Again, Hewitt takes the lead vocals and delivers it with effortless ease.
The breakdown on this song where they get into the “oh so good” is enchanting and I am lucky to have seen the group live where they really homed in on this part of the song and extended it.
Not many albums will end their set with such a brilliant tune.
There are sections of the album that are a little filler and are some way off the quality of the big singles but then there are a few surprises that I found particularly enjoyable.
I love the voice of Howard Hewitt and therefore will enjoy just about anything he sings but there are some exceptional tracks on here and all three group members (in any incarnation of Shalamar) will be singing these songs forever more.
Classic pop/soul and disco wrapped up in a highly enjoyable album.
It perhaps lacks depth to the lyrical content, but “Friends” is fun, positive and intended to give the listener a good time and that is exactly what it delivers.