Keep Reachin'Up is a record with a curious back-story. Nicole Willis was born in Brooklyn but spent much of the mid-1980s and '90s touring (the Repercussions, the The) and collaborating with bands such as Deee-Lite and Leftfield. In the late 1990s she married Jimi Tenor, a Finnish techno producer, and moved to Europe.
Meanwhile a loose collection of musicians from soul bands and garage rock bands around Helsinki formed Calypso King and the Soul Investigators, releasing the well-received Soul Strike! in 2001 on Soul Fire Records. In 2005, after two solo records, Willis and a revamped line-up of the Soul Investigators began collaborating on the songs that would become Keep Reachin'Up. There is a gorgeous, timeless quality to Keep Reachin'Up — the album doesn't aspire to sound like the soul records of the 1960s or the funk of the '70s, though it feels incredibly familiar in the way all great pop can. (Maybe it has to do with the fact that it was recorded in Finland, far from the source.)
Pizzicato strings announce the carefree opener “Feeling Free,” before a Motown-nicked chug of drums and bass arrives. “If This Ain't Love,” the first single, is radiant; it opens tentatively, with a trickle of guitars and a thick ribbon of bass, before Willis sings one of the great, clap-along spring anthems. The screechy “Keep Reachin'Up” and “Blues Downtown” are funkier, more conventional fare. A mighty trio follows: “My Four Leaf Clover,” skittishly blends girl-group pop and swinging northern soul; “A Perfect Kind of Love” feels like a soul tune anticipating the leaden drum-breaks of hip-hop; and “Invisible Man,” a soul-pop gem that charges with a full head of steam. “Invisible Man” was produced by house hero Maurice Fulton — the mastermind behind the messy disco of Kathy Diamond's Miss Diamond to You, another of this year's brilliantly out-of-time records. Perhaps the most anachronistic aspect of the song isn't the music, but the lyrics. Willis sings about absurdly simple things: dancing and having carefree nights out, picking yourself up and dusting off and meeting the One (which — even more anachronistically — harks back to a time when the concept was a sturdy, universal one). But Willis sells it. She doesn't have the strongest voice but it's perfectly sized for the band and Tenor's masterful arrangements.