Imagine if Curtis Mayfield were still alive and making music as he did in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Now factor in the devout feeling of Paul Weller’s Mayfield-loving records of the ’80s with the Style Council. That’s the sound and spirit of Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, an unlikely but inspired combination of a Brooklyn-born, Helsinki-based singer and a Finnish band. It’s righteous, reverent old-school soul filtered through the retro/revisionist sensibilities and playing skills of New Wave and acid-jazz.
You’ve heard it before, yet not quite: Opening salvo “Light Years Ahead” is virtually a rewrite of Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” featuring blaxploitation strings suggesting the tension of a pressure cooker ready to blow, as well as an enraged wah-wah solo more James White & the Blacks than Dennis Coffey. The fuzz-crazed riff burning in and out of “Time to Get the Business Straight” pushes into Nuggets‘ garage rock territory, even if a smooth subsequent vibraphone pulls the track right back to soul. Some songs are twice as long as they’d have been back in the day, as if the band kept jamming long after the engineer faded the cut, and that’s OK: These Investigators aren’t super-tight, but they’re enthusiastic and Willis grounds their nostalgia with genuine heart, particularly on the wistful “Best Days of Our Lives.”