Words by Max Henderson
Despite its polish, the soundtrack of Dreamgirls left me wanting, and hollow. It was the music. I am not talking about the voice of Jennifer Hudson who beautifully renders a cathartic purging of expression and anguish in her rendering of “I Am Telling You,” or the proven strengths in Beyonce. It had nothing to do with the voices of others. The problem is in the music. Motown has some of the greatest arrangements and sounds in modern American music. So does their bulwark-competitors James Brown and Aretha Franklin. In Dreamgirls, we barely get any of that. What we get in its absence is something shiny and alien in terms of “Motown” sound. I was not expecting the producers to be able to redo its sound measure to measure, but I hoped to hear more Jennifer Hudson-moments, more accurate and successful wrestling and re-telling of Motown history, and most importantly more soul.
Anyone looking for that sound can find it in “Keep Reachin’ Up” by Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators. The genius in this group is that they realize and acknowledge the strengths in the “soul music” without trying to update the sound into overproduced cacophony. This Finnish band, tackles the small tight grooves of the sixties, as well as the lush blend string arrangements of the seventies. To my knowledge, the band does not use sampled materials, producing their own organic sound. The opening track “Feeling Free,” begins with a bright melody that shines with enough sound to melt away any winter blues. The strings float, there is a budding interplay of piano and harp, the drums thump, and then Willis’ voice enters. Hers is a voice that sparkles amongst these clustered drums and pounding piano chords. She has a pulsing, bright urgency devoid of melisma leanings. She is complimented by “The Soul Investigators” who support her with a wealth of supple, blending sounds. The band’s strengths can be heard on “Soul Investigators Theme.” It has a melancholic airy piano run, a buzzing-guitar effect, a swelling bass line, and a cloistering drum pattern, that showcase an instrumental that begs for Ghostface to rap over, should the album ever release in the U.S. proper.
The gem of this album though, has to be “No One’s Gonna Love You.” This song is achingly beautiful to hear. The pushing band arrangement and Willis’ devoted attention to restraint, juxtapose well: there is this building that begins from the guitar line that descends into this churning organ and drum interchange. With Willis’ voice, things conflagrate slowly and bubble into this electric moment where the chorus of background singers make everything come to a head and then there again is restraint. There is the smoldering build of everything coming back into play. There is a third build and the band solos, making every note count by threatening to come to a head again. When things do explode from the chorus, Willis’ voice is nowhere to be heard and it is a nice touch in its absence. On paper, this does not sound as impressive, but actually listening to the song coming together feels as satisfying as jumping into a pond on a summer day in Georgia. Listening to that final part though, where everything is toppling and building, is like climbing a ladder of steps to a high diving board. Now step off the board. Pause for a second. Right there is the moment. Between water and board, there inside that weightless time before you feel the impact of jumping, before the falling, before everything falls apart, and before we wish to hear the soothing resonance of Willis’ voice to comfort us is a delightful moment to witness.
For more info, visit www.nicolewillis.com or www.myspace.com/nicolewillisandthesoulinvestigators.