Nicole Willis is certainly not as well known as fellow soul shakers like Sharon Jones and Betty LaVette, but she certainly deserves to be. This may have to do with the fact that the singer has spent the last handful of years residing in Finland of all places, making tours around the States less frequent. After one listen to her fifth solo album Happiness In Every Style, you will be on the Nicole Willis train. This singer and her band The Soul Investigators embrace exactly what the album title suggests: happiness and style.
Willis – who has been active since the 80s singing in groups from Deee-Lite to NYC-based acid jazz and soul group Repercussions and much more – brings her cool, positive spirit and smooth as molasses voice to Style. If the title doesn’t give it away, this is an album that radiates a joy in being alive. With her band keeping simple, classy funk grooves, Willis sings of her love in “One In A Million”, a tune that kicks off the album and feels like it could be a perfect show opener. Within these first four minutes, the singer’s confident optimism towards life has us convinced that, despite the myriad of problems in the world, things will be alright as long as you have love.
But don’t think that Nicole Willis is all sunshine and daisies. After all, this is still soul music. In “Where Are You Now” she confesses that there’s no way to bring her baby back, while “Thief In The Night” is a sexy, slinky look at infidelity and a lying lover. Harmonies shine on “Together We Climb” and “Paint Me In The Corner”, songs that both firmly establish that Ms. Willis is not one to be trifled with.
What sets apart the music from other throwback soul acts is the lounge-y flutes, bongos, and xylophone that can be heard on songs like “Vulture’s Prayer”, an instrumental that feels like it could be the soundtrack to a 70s crime thriller, and “Bad Vibrations”. You can almost feel these songs serving as interludes while the singer steps backstage for a costume change.
Like any great soul album, the centerpiece of Style is the voice of Nicole Willis. On each track she displays as much versatility as she does sheer authority in nearly any type of song. She is just as comfortable singing funky, upbeat tunes of love as she is taking us down darker, more mournful paths with slower songs. The bottom line is that Nicole Willis can sing, and there is a feeling of youth and freshness in her voice. If there is one lacking part of the album, it’s the feeling that singer and band are holding back some unbridled power. One can’t help but think that, between her voice and her band, Nicole Willis is so close to fully unleashing a pure gale of raw emotion, yet it never fully happens. Nonetheless, Happiness In Every Style is a fine record and a damn fun listen.