As modern classic soul goes, there are choices aplenty thanks to an array of independent projects coming and going on a daily basis. Few, however, combine so many of the essential elements as does The British Collective on Vol 1: The Renaissance Begins… Comprised of a dream cast of veteran and longstanding singer-songwriters from all corners of the UK R&B spectrum—Junior Giscombe, Leee John, Don-E, Omar, and Noel McCoy, the well-studied and equally enthusiastic ensemble delivers a festive 14-track CD embodying all that’s fulfilling and enriching about British black music of the past three decades.
The Renaissance Begins… was previewed in 2014 by the coolly swingin’ midtempo, “Romantic.” While that number still pleases, it actually pales in comparison to much of the remarkable material that the Collective has come up with in the interim. From the first measure of the opening “Piece of Heaven,” the guys’ metaphysical understanding of what makes a great groove becomes clear. The vibe is addictive enough to please fans of up-to-the-minute sonic permutations, but solidly grounded in a timeless sensibility that will quickly win over old-school devotees. Don-E’s lightly floating tones on the first verse contrasted with Noel McCoy’s shades of yearning on the second are an example of how the group’s versatile influences provide satisfying returns time after time.
Continuing the flow of “Heaven,” the punchy and peppery “Stay” builds anticipation with convivial handclaps before the groove kicks in. Junior’s impassioned tenor displays both power and vulnerability which have not faded with the years, as a contagious background chant of “Get down, baby girl, get down” compliments the ride further. Lest there be any concern that The Renaissance Begins… is structured from merely a couple of strong entries, the aural delight keeps on with the atmospheric jam “Higher Love” (featuring guests Alex Charles and Errol Reid). Emblazoned with undertones of legato keyboard work, the song’s straight-ahead message of hedonism by means of music and dance is brought home by acutely executed vocal phrasing and subtly sophisticated harmonies.
Following this triple threat of funky uptempo soul, the pace is slowed momentarily for the winding reggae calm of “Take Your Time,” succeeded by the inviting house swagger of “Won’t You Come Over.” Andrew Roachford and Donavon Blackwood lend their distinctive pipes to the latter, leading surprisingly smoothly into the slower, yet just as tasty “That’s Why.” The tune blends rhythmic elements of bossa nova and calypso (courtesy of Andrew McLean) which gel impressively with Omar’s deep, hardy delivery and Leee John’s serene flourishes.
Building even deeper on the wide-ranging palette of sounds, the Collective tackles Trevor Walters’ lovers’ rock anthem “Love Me Tonight” (a 1981 top-30 UK hit) in modestly jazzy groove fashion. Though it’s hard to touch the unaffected sweetness of the original, the guys do a credible job of preserving its integrity while adding distinguished vocal characteristics—from John’s understated treatment to Don-E’s earnestly ardent attack. Meanwhile, John displays a similarly soft charisma on the original, ultra-kinetic “Flow,” a synth bass-driven track bolstered by Junior’s vibrant runs. “Loosen up, feel the pleasure, let yourself flow…” Indeed.
On a particularly ambitious note, John covers Eddie Kendricks’ 1974 gem “Tell Her Love Has Felt the Need.” Strikingly channeling Kendricks with his pure falsetto allurement, he conjures the bittersweet lyrics with acute candor. Although the backing arrangement is slightly lacking in warmth, it functions reliably and is abetted by gutsy closing vamps by McKoy.
After the endearing “Sign of the Times,” The Renaissance closes with the gentle swayer “Doctor Love,” a no-frills slow jam highlighting the Collective’s adept harmonies from start to finish, complimented with an appearance by Glen Goldsmith. It’s a left-field choice to end the set, given that it’s more than a few notches down in tone from almost all of the other cuts; but it serves as additional testament to the guys’ through-and-through successful quest to stray from compartmentalization and formula. Highly recommended.