Thursday, February 19, 2009

Nikka Costa -- Pebble To A Pearl

Nikka Costa -- Pebble To A Pearl (Stax)

After two albums of hyper retro ‘70s soul, Costa moves to the revived Stax label and tones down her approach, to her detriment. Costa is at her best when she’s being sassy and a bit out-of-control. Ideally, she should try a whacked out cover of Natalie Cole’s “Sophisticated Lady”. Okay, maybe I’m the only who thinks so.

While Costa is very respectful to ‘60s soul traditions on this effort, and the playing on is tasteful throughout, Costa fails to play to her strengths. This is exemplified on her rendition of Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Loving You”. Every detail is in place, from the warm swelling Hammond organ to the backing vocals. But Costa’s modulated vocal performance is adequate at best. She can’t find a way to lower her energy so substantially while still really inhabiting the song.

This applies equally to the mid-tempo slink of “Cry Baby”, a track co-written by Lamont Dozier. This tune percolates and sounds perfectly pleasant. But it lacks a bit of spark and goes on much too long, clocking in at just over five minutes.

This isn’t a bad album, just one that seems to fall a bit short in every department. Even the opener, “Stuck to You”, which comes a bit closer musically to the best material on her prior albums (though it’s more organic and less urban funk), is weighed down by some lame lyrics (“if you a case/I be a jury...if you a soul/I be your Otis Redding”).

Costa does score on “Pebble to a Pearl”, which unveils the clavinet for a bit of a Stevie Wonder feel. Moreover, the song has a driving hook. Still, if the energy been upped a bit on this track, it would go from being good to great. All the ingredients are there.

Sophistication doesn’t become Costa. She’s a screamer and a wild woman, and I hope that she gets crazy on her next effort.

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