November 22-29, 2006

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Nicole Willis

Nicole Willis: Who'da guessed Lapland was so damned funky?

Mighta Missed

A random sample of great albums you may have missed

By Sara Bir

According to Soundscan, a music retail tracking service, last year record labels released 60,331 new albums--and that number doesn't even include self-released albums or ones on small independent labels. A tiny sliver became hits. And the rest? They either slunk away sulkily to stew in their own failure or retired to a quiet but fulfilling life in the country.

There are a number of ways one comes to learn about those 60,000-odd albums. If you are a hustling music writer, you sit back and watch the promo copies roll into the office. If you are a normal human, perhaps you see Janet Jackson's stick-puppet body listlessly propped up on the cover of every glossy major magazine for, oh, seven months straight, and then you think, "Gee, Janet must have a new album out."

The third way to find out about music is my personal favorite, and that is to haplessly blunder into it; it's proof that the world is humming with undeserved creative greatness. That's how the following four CDs came into my life: circumstance, coincidence, chaos. These are a very few of the many great albums that, every week, every year, slip through the cracks.

Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators' Keep Reachin' Up didn't exactly slip through the cracks, at least not in England, where the Northern Soul scene (whatever that is) quickly embraced this 2005 release. Willis is American-born; the Soul Investigators are Finnish. You would never guess Lapland was so damn funky. I dare anyone to take the Folgers Challenge with Keep Reachin' Up; only dedicated fans of late '60s and early '70s soul would be able to detect its 21st-century origins.

Willis' vocal range isn't mind-shattering, but her delivery is infectiously confident. The Soul Investigators, meanwhile, turn out nuanced, ass-shaking rave-ups that make this the best Ameri-Finnish party album in, oh, a thousand years. Upbeat, groovy and tuneful, Willis and the Soul Investigators deliver a deft slab of trans-generational soul-channeling.

Mr. Bir Toujour has dragged me to many a boring concert over the years, but a few weekends ago the record release party for NYC neo-shoegazers Soundpool made them all worthwhile. First of all, the $10 cover included all of the beer, wine and Asian rice cracker snack mix one could handle. Secondly, the venue was not a stinky old warehouse, but a swanky loft apartment with one of those dazzling nighttime skyline views that trick romantics like me into moving to filthy metropolises like this. We left with a mighty buzz and a copy of Soundpool's self-released On High, whose hazy wash of keyboards, guitar and ethereal girl-boy vocals pays sonic homage to the usual suspects: My Bloody Valentine, Lush and Curve.

But Soundpool's prettiness is without the dark undertone of their early '90s predecessors, giving them a bit of what I call a "trendy upscale boutique hotel lobby sound." Soundpool deliver nothing groundbreaking, but it's pleasant, atmospheric music that's been magically transforming my dingy apartment into a trendy upscale lobby for weeks now.

On a friend's recommendation, and in anticipation of Halloween spine-chills, we rented a copy of 'The Wicker Man'--the 1973 original, not this summer's pigheaded remake starring mope-faced Nicolas Cage. What we got was an eyeful of Christopher Lee's hair, Britt Ekland's boobs and sexually liberated pagans frolicking on a remote Scottish island in double knit polyester frocks. But what really makes The Wicker Man such an askew delight is its musical element. Composer Paul Giovanni's lovely but somewhat dorky interpretations of traditional folksongs raise the movie from a tepid, faltering thriller to a randy adult version of a Walt Disney live-action musical, and the juxtaposition is weirdly magical.

The soundtrack, remastered and released in 2002, includes a lecherous pub shout-along, a bewitching, come-hither song of seduction and the village children's eerie chanting of a maypole dance that will lodge itself in your head for days. The sprightly, elvish-woodland tinge of the lyrics and instrumentation (fiddle, Jew's harp, lyre, fife) shares a common spirit with another British rediscovery of late, Vashti Bunyan's 1970 album Another Diamond Day. See the movie, get the soundtrack, and in no time you'll be having your very own Mayday hootenanny in November.

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