The Reel & Soul Association,
The Reel & Soul Association
(Flying Sparks, 2002)

Producer and guitarist Nigel Stonier has assembled an all-star cast of British folk-rock artists to recreate, of all things, American soul music. Lead vocals are shared by Kellie While (daughter of Chris While, singer with both E2K and the Albion Band) and singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore; musicians include Stonier (well known as Gilmore's producer and guitarist), Martin Allcock (of Fairport Convention fame) on mandolin and bass; Simon Swarbrick (son of Dave Swarbrick) on fiddle; Robbie McIntosh (who has worked with various groups, including the Pretenders and the Paul McCartney Band) on guitar, mandolin and banjo; and John Kirkpatrick (known for his work with Steeleye Span and Ashley Hutchings) on accordion, concertina and vocals. Bringing together the generations for a folk project seems more likely, but the results generally are rewarding to hear.

Uilleann pipes, tin whistles and folk-style fiddles on soul music? OK, call it British soul with a folk twist, or maybe it's more British folk with soul. The opening track, Marvin Gaye's "Are You Sure," with While's vocals against Stonier's acoustic guitar, is more in the latter category. While's voice on this song is just a little too sweet. It's a fun song, but it definitely is more folk than soul. However, she's much stronger later on Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." Michael McGoldrick's whistle just adds to the mood. It's not merely a cover; it's their song. The same goes for the Isley Brothers' "Harvest for the World." John Kirkpatrick's accordion is a stand-out; While's light voice flows freely.

He sets the mood once again on Isaac Hayes' "Something is Wrong with My Baby," on which While and Gilmore together share vocals. Gilmore's voice is deeper than While's. Although they're both around the same age, While's voice delightfully rings of innocence. Gilmore, only in her early 20s, sounds like a woman who has travelled the world and has seen things she probably shouldn't have viewed.

The opening to "Warm and Tender Love" sounds like a Celtic piece at first, what with McGoldrick's uilleann pipes and Stonier's acoustic guitar. However, once Gilmore joins that combination, she transforms the song into a gentle, reassuring love song. It's a simple and highly captivating arrangement, as is "Lean on Me." "Higher Ground" starts off as a wild Celtic guitar romp that is effectively slowed down by hand drums and While's graceful voice. It's not Stevie Wonder, nor even Ellen McIlwaine, who once covered it, but it's engaging.

Not all of the songs benefit from their British folk reinterpretations. "Get Ready" sounds rushed. I want to tell While and band to slow down, take their time and enjoy the song. While Kirkpatrick's accordion works well on other songs, it's just too much on "Green Onions." Overall, however, this is an album that simply is fun to hear. Is this a one-time group? Only time will tell. However, they have made it to the UK's music program, Top of the Pops 2. Who knows where they might go next?

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 22 October 2002