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Finnish Group Rocks Retro Soul in 'Keep Reachin' Up'
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Finnish Group Rocks Retro Soul in 'Keep Reachin' Up'

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

For music, 2007 has sounded a lot like 1967 with the popularity of such retro soul artists as John Legend and Amy Winehouse. The sound is quintessentially American, but not all the artists are. Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators joined the crowd with their debut album "Keep Reachin' Up."

Our reviewer Oliver Wang says the band gets what it reaches for.

OLIVER WANG: When you first hear Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, you might assume they're from Detroit or Philadelphia or maybe New Orleans. Helsinki probably would not be your first guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "IF THIS AIN'T LOVE")

NICOLE WILLIS: (Singing) Woke up this morning, saw that spring had come. I had been weary waiting for the one. I looked around and saw my life could be full of the finer things like the warm breeze.

WANG: Willis was born in Brooklyn. Since the late 1990s, she's lived and recorded in Finland. The Soul Investigators are an all-Finnish band who've done some serious studying at the altar of old soul and funk records. Their first album together, "Keep Reachin' Up," is just now getting American distribution. The timing couldn't be better especially with the success of the U.K.'s Amy Winehouse who boasts her own style of throwback soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TEARS DRY ON THEIR OWN")

AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) I don't understand. Why do I stress the man? When there's so many bigger things at hand. We could a never had it all. We had to hit a wall. So this is inevitable withdrawal.

WANG: Retro soul first took off 10 years ago with New York's Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Germany's Poets of Rhythm. With so much contemporary R&B aping hip-hop style, retro soul has found a growing audience among those yearning for the soul music of their youth or more likely their parents' youth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "MY FOUR LEAF CLOVER")

WILLIS: (Singing) My four leaf clover, lucky did he was sober. He was so sweet, sweet enough to eat. It's gonna be my baby. You know I don't mean maybe. And I'll treat you right, kiss and hold you tight.

WANG: Some retro soul bands are long on authenticity but short on originality. Willis and & the Soul Investigators, however, execute their songs with such sophistication and genuine charm that they can draw from the past without sliding into tribute band mimicry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "INVISIBLE MAN")

WILLIS: (Singing) Ooh. Stepped into the party, and all you did was turned you head. I could see your lips moving, but I didn't hear a word you said. Even though you were long gone, all your (unintelligible) have stolen me. 'Cause never again with the invincible man, why you keep on haunting me.

WANG: The chemistry between singer and band proves crucial. Willis had already cut too confident but conventional R&B albums before joining with the Soul Investigators. The band brings out a personality missing in her early recording. The musician's diverse styles pushed Willis to flex her rich pliable voice on plaintive ballads as well as fiery funk tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "KEEP REACHIN' UP")

WILLIS: (Singing) Keep reachin' up. Oh, yeah. Reachin' up for the real me, yeah. Keep reachin' up. Oh, yeah. Reachin' up for the real me. Yeah.

WANG: It may seem odd that a group from Finland would be so fluent with this style like of American culture, but it suggests how powerfully resonant soul is not just to our sonic heritage, but to music around the world.

NORRIS: Music from the Soul Investigators. Oliver Wang is a music critic in L.A.

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