Rhythm & Views

Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators

Straight outta Finland explodes this amazing American-bred soul singer and her backing band. If you're digging contemporary soul sisters such as Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones, you gotta check this out.

Willis was born in Brooklyn and for a time lived in England. She has worked with Curtis Mayfield, the Brand New Heavies and Dee-Lite. Keep Reachin' Up is actually her third album, but the first with the Finnish funk collective Soul Investigators.

While Willis boasts some powerful R&B pipes, calling to mind everybody from Aretha Franklin to Donna Summer (and many of the artists who connect them), much of this CD's treats come via the arrangements, which are jam-packed with lots of cool stylistic ideas courtesy of the Soul Investigators, aided and abetted by the Pekka Kuusisto String Orchestra.

Slathered in lush Motown horns, congas and plucked strings, "Feelin' Free" is a guilty pleasure made for shaking a serious tail feather, while "If This Ain't Love (Don't Know What Is)" recalls sunny '60s girl groups and groovy '70s soul; it even includes a jazzy flute solo.

Those clever inversions of retro style will barely prepare listeners for the potent blast of the James Brown-style title track, on which Willis wails like a voodoo priestess against oh-so-sexual horns and an authentic funky-drummer-style backbeat. Then there's a raunchy wah-wah guitar, juke-joint organ and another muscular horn chart on "Blues Downtown," which might've borrowed its spy-movie undertone from modern trip-hop.

And all that happens before the album is half over. There's more goodies in store on this gem.

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