First Impressions: Outside Looking In by Stone Foundation

“Believe in yourself and you can make a difference/believe in yourself and you can find a second chance,” sings Neil Jones on the soulful “Echoes of Joy,” one of the highlights of the latest offering from the British R&B group Stone Foundation—their 10th album, believe it or not. Written (as all the songs) by guitarist/lead vocalist Jones and bassist Neil Sheasby, it’s essentially a positive affirmation set to a taut groove, urging listeners to use the memories of past joy to push forward to the new. “Don’t let life pass you by,” he urges. Though inspired by pandemic life, it could well be about any of life’s hurdles; when down and out, hold on to hope. There is always a reason to wake up, roll out of bed and start a new day.

The album opens with “Soon You’ll Return,” which makes judicious use of backing vocalists Andre Laville, Sheree Dubois and Graziella Affinita, as well as horns, to set the mood; it reminds me both of Avalon-era Roxy Music and Van Morrison circa Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. “Turning Up the Hurt,” on the other hand, is prototypical Stone Foundation, with slinky guitars, syncopated rhythms and Jones’ soulful vocals weaving a comfortable sonic quilt that is sure to block out the ills of the day, whatever those ills may be. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Paul Weller lending vocal support; he also contributes supporting vocals to “Echoes of Joy,” plus plays guitar and piano on other tracks; his old Style Council mates Mick Talbot and Steve White sit in on several songs, too. An array of other guests also lend their talents to the proceedings, with Laville, Dubois, Affinita, Sulene Fleming and Melba Moore all taking turns in the spotlight.

“Now That You Want Me Back,” along with several of the other tracks—such as “I Need Your Love” and “Heaven Knows Why”—feature a late-‘70s disco-soul vibe; they’re addictive as all get-out and should please fans of Durand Jones & the Indications and other retro-minded R&B/soul acts here in the States. Other tracks conjure Traffic, Style Council and the Stax/Volt greats, but the influences never overwhelm the songs—well, almost never. To my ears, the title track apes the Talking Heads a little too much—and given that I’ve never been much of a Talking Heads fan, for me that means it’s more annoying than fun. The soulful “Feel the Colours” makes up for that transgression, however. “I believe there’s a truth in all of us/I was lost but now I’m found….”

The deluxe version of the album, which is only available from the Stone Foundation’s official store, comes with a bonus disc titled Inside Looking Out. It kicks off with “Sign of the Future,” which features Carlton Jumel Smith handling lead vocals, and includes a version of “Now That You Want Me Back” that finds Jones singing in the place of Moore. There’s also not one, not two, but 10 songs recorded live—including a cover of TLC’s “Waterfalls” that’s way cool plus a rendition of “Outside Looking In” that’s much more palatable than the studio version. It makes a good album even better.

Which is all to say: Outside Looking In is well worth the investment of time and, for those who want the bonus disc, money. It’s a collection of soulful songs sure to lift you up when feeling down and, too, should make a good companion when in the car. Give it a go.

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