Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators’ latest album is as retro as it gets — the band feel as if they rose from the combined vaults of Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International. So people might cock an eyebrow upon learning they’re from Helsinki.
Singer Nicole Willis was born in Brooklyn and earned a name in the United States before moving to Finland in the late 1990s. She may have her face on the front of the album, but the key to R&B is a solid bass player, and the Soul Investigators’ bassist is right where he should be: fat, steady with the groove and minimal with the notes. The drummer is clean and funky in an Al Jackson or Clyde Stubblefield kind of way, and the rest of the band — organ, guitar, horn and string sections — embellish the basic rhythms and melodies in clever but very natural ways.
Overall, the Soul Investigators have an earthy looseness that makes their music sound fresh and lusty, rather than over-rehearsed or academic. Willis generally follows the formula of great soul singers, but she’s at her best when she digs into her own mid-range sweet-spot, where she sounds honest, effortless and very likable. And when she does, boy does the band make her sound good.