A half-year after making his solo recording debut with Soul Wash (2009), a six-track EP of cover songs, Ben L'Oncle Soul
made his full-length debut with a self-titled effort comprised almost entirely of original material co-written by the vocalist himself. The only song not credited to Soul
is the standout version of the White Stripes'
"Seven Nation Army" from the Soul Wash EP, reprised here as the album opener. Graced with a nimble bassline, touches of organ, and well-placed horn blasts, this version of "Seven Nation Army" stays true to the original yet approaches the song with a retro-soul style informed by the Motown and Stax sounds of the '60s. Truth be told, it's a bit gimmicky. Then again, Soul
himself is part shtick, as his name and look come from Uncle Ben, the fictitious, elderly, African American man dressed in a bow tie who serves as the brand image of Uncle Ben's Rice. Even the cover image is gimmicky, designed to look like an old Motown record -- and fittingly so, for the album was indeed released by the French division of Motown Records. Fortunately, there's a lot more to Soul
than shtick, as the music on his self-titled album is often outstanding. The "Seven Nation Army" cover gets the album off to an astonishing start, but the next three songs -- "Soulman," "Petite Soeur," and "Mon Amour" all of them sung in French -- are where the music truly takes flight and the shtick becomes an afterthought. Following fifth track "Elle Me Dit," a dead ringer for early-'70s Sly & the Family Stone
switches to English for a couple second-rate numbers. The album picks up several tracks later with "Ain't Off to the Back," an English-language collaboration with Beat Assailant, the album's sole guest feature. While the remainder of the album has some memorable moments, "Lose It" in particular, it fails to reach the same heights as the front-loaded run of highlights. Produced by Guillaume Poncelet and Gabin Lesieur, Ben L'Oncle Soul
is an impressive debut album that shouldn't be written off on account of its retro stylization, which goes out of its way to capitalize on the Motown brand association. ~ Jason Birchmeier, Rovi