Nicole Willis

Keep Reachin Up: Remixed

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After a pair of essentially modern-styled R&B outings, the Brooklyn-born, Europe-based vocalist Nicole Willis struck out in a new direction on her third full-length, teaming up with Finnish funk combo the Soul Investigators in 2005 for a hearty take on '60s and '70s stylings which, by accident or design, fit right in with the vintage soul resurgence that was then getting underway. Relative to other diva-led throwback acts such as Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, Willis and her cohorts come off as especially convincing revivalists (or especially deceptive simulators), despite seeming comparably laid-back about taking an authentically "retro" approach, or at least about sticking to one particular type of soul. Stylistically, they trend toward the more polished, pop-oriented Northern Soul end of things, occasionally using strings in place of horns and generally keeping things up and peppy, on stomping highlights like "If This Ain't Love," "Invisible Man" (which features girl group-styled falsetto backups sung by noted dance producers Maurice Fulton and Jimi Tenor, who's also Willis' husband) and "My Four Leaf Clover," which nods specifically and delightfully to early Motown and to Martha & the Vandellas in particular. Opener "Feeling Free," which boasts the album's most uplifting and irresistible chorus hook, sports a similarly chunky early-'60s backbeat wrapped in a lavish arrangement of strings, bongos, and palm-muted guitar that suggests more of an early-'70s, Philly International vibe, whereas the slightly groovier "A Perfect Kind of Love" lays on the Stax-style horn parts and chicken shack organ. The detours into harder-headed funk ("Holdin' On" and the title track) and smoky balladry ("Blues Downtown" and "No One's Gonna Love You") are somewhat less effective: despite some compelling and atmospheric playing from the Investigators, Willis' voice isn't quite richly textured enough to be as effortlessly authoritative here as it is on the more melodic, poppier material. Still, these tracks are far from serious missteps, and they do add some well-intentioned variety to an album that, on the whole, stands as one of the finer soul full-lengths of the decade. [A remixed version was also released.]

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