Far from being a rip-off of the soul greats, Ben L'Oncle Soul proves his worth as an authentic soul singer
Soul is a genre that I like a lot, but as an area of expertise, it’s more Danny’s area than mine. I love Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, but I can hardly say I’m an expert on the deeper cuts of soul music and Motown. It’s also a genre that I associate entirely with a particular moment in time in the American music industry, that of the 1960s and ‘70s. Motown and the soul genre – to my admittedly limited knowledge – had its bubble (and a hugely successful one at that), but it was confined to that point in time. With that in mind, any artist evoking that genre in the modern day often has the label ‘retro’ assigned to them, a label that always seems to bring with it negative connotations of being derivative, a knock-off, or attempting to cash in on nostalgia. Ben L’Oncle Soul is perhaps retro, but I would argue he’s none of those aforementioned pejoratives. Though his music is harking back to the soul classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, to my mind it is retro in a good sense, as he feels like the real deal. It’s a neo-soul album that plays it completely straight, with few modern flourishes, and it succeeds in its ambition. That said, it has its flaws, which we’ll come to, but overall, Ben L’Oncle Soul is an album that feels like a worthy addition to the genre from which it takes its inspiration.
“I assume he isn’t releasing an album like this to capitalise on nostalgia (my evidence being the complete lack of covers of soul classics), but rather because he loves the genre and wanted to leave his mark on it, which he does successfully and admirably."
Ben L’Oncle Soul is his self-titled debut album from 2010, and it’s a very solid and fun first effort. He is clearly inspired by the music of Motown and its artists, but he puts his own spin on things. First of all, he sings in both English and French, which sets him apart from traditional soul music, and it’s on the French tracks where he really comes into his own. The English language songs are still good, especially Soulman, Lose It, and Come Home, but this is where he is most susceptible to the criticism of being retro for the sake of it, if only because it seems less personal. He also does a fun cover of Seven Nation Army, and it’s pretty good. It isn’t a song I ever thought really needed covering, but I suppose I was wrong, and he makes it authentically soul.
He also touches on some other genres, like reggae in I Don’t Wanna Waste, and L’Ombre D’Un Homme takes inspiration from funk. Come Home has a rockier edge than the rest of the album that’s somewhat reminiscent of a Prince song. That said, experimentation isn’t his forte, but when you’re listening to an album named as this one is, you know exactly what you’re gonna get. The only real issue I have with this album lies in the slower songs. They’re just a bit boring, and on an album that’s somewhat overly long as it is, coming in at 55 minutes, you do wonder if they could not have been cut to make the album leaner. Partir and Back For You are the worst offenders, two of the longest songs on the album, and they don’t add a great deal. As much as Ben might like to think he is, he’s no Donny Hathaway, thus this sort of soul wailing comes across as insincere and unimpressive. The worst thing is those two songs are separated by the absolute banger that is Lose It, which once again sees him on comfortable turf.
That said, while I’m less convinced by him when he’s attempting the emotional ballads, the fact is when he is singing the upbeat songs, he’s very convincing, and it’s like listening to classic Motown, but sung in French with a modern beat and production values. This is why, to me, he is retro without being derivative. I assume he isn’t releasing an album like this to capitalise on nostalgia (my evidence being the complete lack of covers of soul classics), but rather because he loves the genre and wanted to leave his mark on it, which he does successfully and admirably. He might not quite be on the Amy Winehouse level of creating neo-soul that’s really just authentic soul, but then again, few are.