Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson are like a couple out of a Richard Linklater movie. Sure, they love each other — they've been together for nearly a decade. But hanging out with them in their sunny Burlington apartment overlooking a train yard and Lake Champlain, even for just a couple of hours, it's hard not to get caught up in just how much the couple, well, like each other. It's infectious.
Nelson is standing on the far side of an island in their spacious kitchen. When she unleashes her big, warm smile — something she does with frequency and ease, often while gently teasing Ritcher — a light swath of freckles wrinkles across the bridge of her nose. Ritcher, meanwhile, is seated on a stool opposite her, picking at a tray of meats and cheeses furnished by their neighbor, Muchacho Taco owner Jamie Miller.
Ritcher's signature flat cap is slung low, shielding his alert eyes. He speaks purposefully, with just a trace of a brusque New Jersey accent. He has an understated cool, a contrast to Nelson's luminous presence. But to gauge his low-key demeanor as aloofness is a mistake. As Nelson speaks, he'll nod at key moments, almost imperceptibly. Or a wry grin will crease the corner of his mouth as he raises his gaze across the countertop. Ritcher is listening intently, lovingly.
But you don't need to visit them at their home to get sense of the couple's connection to each other. All you really need to do is hear them play.
Ritcher and Nelson are better known to locals, and increasingly to those beyond Vermont, as the roots-soul duo Dwight & Nicole. They've just released a new album, Shine On, and will play a release party at ArtsRiot in Burlington this Friday, April 25. Even more than their 2010 debut, !Signs, the new album suggests a musical and emotional bond that would seem too precious if it weren't so damned genuine. Even the cover of the new record, which features the two sitting on porch steps grinning like fools, sunglasses shading their eyes from a radiant sun, seems ripped from the folk mockumentary A Mighty Wind. It's so gooey it almost has to be a setup. Except that it's not.
"There's no real concept or theme," says Nelson of the new album. "However, I think it represents a cross-section of our lives. There's an undercurrent of our love in it; our love of our lives and for each other."
Indeed, the album's lead cut, "I Need Love" is a boisterous duet that finds the duo splitting verses over an insistent, classic R&B strut, complete with exultant horns. Ritcher's reedy blues-tinged delivery is a balancing keel to Nelson's gusty diva wail. But when they join at the chorus and repeat the title phrase, their voices blend together and take wind as if they couldn't exist any other way. That union of styles and eagerness to play off each other's strengths is precisely what makes the duo so compelling and almost impossibly sweet.
The album's next cut, "Tomorrow's Not Today," is a stylistic about-face. It's a sinewy number with Ritcher taking the lead against a smoky, late-night groove; the song hints at affection for the sly work of songwriter Joe Henry as well as for Ritcher's own blues-club background. He and Nelson met in the early 2000s when he was a staple at Boston blues haunts such as the Regattabar and the original House of Blues in Cambridge. Before they were a couple, they were friends who used to attend and occasionally sit in at each other's shows. But they didn't get together until after both had moved to Brooklyn, where Nelson is from. After a stint in the city and some bouncing around in New England, they landed in Burlington, where Ritcher had attended the University of Vermont in the late 1990s.
"We used to come visit Burlington a lot," says Nelson, lightly running a hand along Ritcher's forearm. "And after every trip we started to realize how much we didn't want to leave."
The duo is now based in Burlington, though Boston still lays some claim to them. Nelson won a 2012 Boston Music Award for Best Female Vocalist, and they were named among the "25 Most Stylish Bostonians" by the Boston Globe in 2011. The new record was recorded at Milt Reder's Rear Window Studios in Brookline. And Nelson's show-stopping appearance on the NBC talent show "The Voice" in 2012 launched a national profile, too. Of her delivery of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in the show's opening round, judge CeeLo Green said, "Nicole's voice is like a mother's love."
Shine On closes on a version of that song. From a business standpoint, it's a savvy move, a reflection of the couple's increasing business acumen.
"You have to love doing the business side, too," says Ritcher of striking the balance between art and commerce.
Nelson didn't win "The Voice," but her rendition of "Hallelujah" tore up the iTunes charts. While including the song on the album could be viewed as opportunistic, you only need to listen to the first few bars — to Ritcher's gentle, hollow-bodied guitar and Nelson's aching croon — to understand why it's there. Cohen's moving treatise on the frail magnificence of love is a perfect benediction to the record. Because, when you listen closely it becomes apparent that Dwight & Nicole aren't playing the song for us. They're playing it for each other.
"We're in this in-between period," says Ritcher. "We're not playing 1,200-seaters. But we feel a little momentum. It's exciting. I'm just glad I still like doing it."
With a teasing smirk, Nelson adds, "I'm glad I still like you."
Ritcher nods, that wry grin dimpling his cheek.