Third album from Willis is her first to fall under the banner of the retro soul movement spearheaded by the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse, and the Quantic Soul Orchestra.
Helsinki isn't internationally known for its R&B bands, but surely stranger things have come from stranger places. Still, using the words "Finnish" and "funk" in the same sentence is a linguistic curiosity that makes the Soul Investigators a great ice-breaking topic of discussion. They've been working as a soul band in a subarctic climate since 1998, when they first bonded over a collective love of Booker T. and the MG's and the Meters. On their 2001 album with Calypso King, Soul Strike!, the Soul Investigators soldiered through songs with titles like "Raw Grapes" and "Brand New Potatoes". I don't care who you are -- if food populates the titles of your musical compositions, your heart's definitely in the right place.
For their third record, Keep Reachin' Up, they back NYC native Nicole Willis, a soul singer with a bright yet pale voice whose past credits include work with Curtis Mayfield and the Brand New Heavies, as well as a brief stint with dance floor mavens Dee-Lite. Keep Reachin' Up happens to be Willis's third full-length as well, and her first to fall under the banner of the retro soul movement spearheaded by the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse, and the Quantic Soul Orchestra. Willis and the Soul Investigators (along with multi-instrumentalist Jimi Tenor, who happens to be Willis's husband) favor the echo and throb of the classic Motown sound, most notably on the urgent "If This Ain't Love (Don't Know What Is)", with its constantly snapping snare drum, and "My Four Leaf Clover", which parades along with the bounce and grandeur of the Supremes. Like Jones's album Naturally, Keep Reachin' Up sounds like it could have been recovered from a long-lost reel of studio tape from some now-defunct studio in the American South.
Willis's voice, however, isn't as distinctive as Jones's or Winehouse's (her attempt at a breathless funk war-cry on the title track is, quite frankly, exasperating). The Dee-Lite connection, however fleeting, is telling, for Willis's voice is often more disco-pop queen than rough-edged soul diva. Likewise, the Soul Investigators aren't as funky as the Dap-Kings. Their moment in the spotlight, the instrumental closing track "Soul Investigators Theme", is only functionally funky and a little stiff. The band does bring some high drama to "No One's Gonna Love You", a six-minute potboiler of slow-motion tension and minor-key R&B; the mix shoots into the red each time the string section and band collide with a well-timed uppercut on the downbeat. If it wasn't for a weak chorus that occasionally derails the song's haunting atmosphere, "No One's Gonna Love You" could be a must-own addition to the growing canon of retro soul classics.
That distinction goes to the lead-off track, "Feeling Free", a classic Curtis Mayfield pose with pizzicato strings, hand percussion, and wah-wah guitar. It's a slick call to the good times of a dance floor, and the entire band nails the track's effervescence -- as Willis sings, "if you like to boogie", then she's got your soundtrack. Despite some of its more prosaic elements, Keep Reachin' Up is, overall, a good thing -- good for soul music and those who pledge their allegiance to classic paradigms. It may not be the pinnacle of the new wave of soul revivalism, but it's a valuable entry in the campaign to keep the collective groove alive.