Once upon a time, not even ten years ago, a little label called Desco was born in New York City. The label specialized in deep, hard funk, namely in the vein of ’70s-era James Brown. Catering to collector nuts and the resurging interest in vinyl, the label issued much of this material as limited edition seven-inches and LPs. There was one catch: These were not reissues but newly recorded songs. And the people huzzaed.
Fast-forward to present: Desco is no more, but both the reissue and the past-as-present market have become accepted additions to the record-bin puzzle. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings share a bill with Morris Day and the Time and no one asks any questions, because — why else? — good music is good music.
Perhaps it is time to tweak the equation again. Just in time for the latest influx of Scandinavian talent, ranging from the flashback redux Dungen and beat faves Raw Fusion/GAMM Records, American expatriate singer Nicole Willis arrives with her latest project: the Soul Investigators. A crack group of Motown students, Fire/Fury enthusiasts and new school Muscle Shoals types from Finland, they lays into grooves both lost and familiar on their warmly nostalgic Keep Reachin’ Up.
True to the group’s name, Willis takes a trip down rhythm & blues memory lane. Period gear and a healthy dose of reverb and echo add a raw, old-school vibe to the proceedings, but the album is more suited for head bopping “ooh la la”s than neck-snapping “uh! hit me”s. The stellar single “If This Ain’t Love (Don’t Know What Is)” unfolds with a heartbeat and a murmur before Willis marches the drums headfirst into spring’s embrace. “A Perfect Kind of Love” ups the ante, stirring Berry Gordy from his rocking chair to wonder aloud, “Why don’t I remember this one?” Blues and ballads are the ensemble’s second forte, as Willis tip-toes through a tulip patch of strings and horns on “No One’s Gonna Love You.” While featherweight songwriting occasionally crumples under the weight of excessive arrangement and production, much like many original Motown albums, but Keep Reachin’ Up breezes by too quickly to notice. Once again, thank the Scandinavians for upping the ante and digging a little deeper.
So, here’s the real question: Are we gonna keep lettin’ the Finns one up us? It’s back to the drawing board.
Nicole Willis Web site (audio samples)Timmion Web site (audio samples)