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CD Review: Nicola, What’s The Point

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I hear an awful lot of cookie-cutter singer-songwriters, so I have to be careful not to overpraise those who merely don’t suck.  So I must ask myself, do I respond so enthusiastically to Nicola just because she doesn’t suck?  Or is she really that good?

Well, I’ve given it some thought and several listens, and the verdict is in.  If her fine but less well produced first albumleft any doubt, this one doesn’t: she’s that good.  This half-hour CD of soulful rock with a touch of Latin spice measures up well not just against her contemporaries on the indie circuit, but against anything today’s biggest names are putting out.

A note: “Nicola” is technically a band, since the eponymous singer lends her first name to the project. Much credit goes to her collaborators, especially longtime bassist Jules Rosaly, who also plays some of the guitar parts on the album.  But Nicola the singer-guitarist is the center, and the fire inside.

What’s The Point opens with a one-two-three punch.  “One Little Girl” with its growling 3/4-time attack announces right off that we’re in for something unusual and proves to be as good as or better than anything you hear on the radio – if anybody listens to the radio any more – from any blues- or alt-rocker on the scene today.  “What’s the Point” also rocks hard but has a poppier melody that could easily be as big a hit as Avril Lavigne’s overproduced teen-angst anthems.  And the title of the wall-of-sound “Bitch” speaks for itself; Nicola’s contribution to the literature of I-hate-you blows Meredith Brooks’s song by the same title out of the water.

The catchy, dramatic mid-tempo rocker “I Don’t Know” features Nicola’s voice drenched in political disillusionment, the bitterness almost palpable in her acid tones.  There’s no better example of her mastery of her material and the seamless fusion of singer, musicians and song.  As Yeats put it, “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”;

“Senorita” – which is about a dancer, in fact – has a lighter touch that provides a welcome respite from the intensity of the previous songs.  It’s followed by the quieter “Message” and the moody alt-rock of “Your Walls,” two good but less catchy songs that would be top tracks on most albums but in this context almost qualify as filler.  Nicola goes over four minutes only on the beautifully dreamy “How,” where her band especially shines.  And the CD closes with the multilingual novelty “Ay Ay Ay,” about how passion reduces us to wordlessness.  It’s a high point of Nicola’s live performances, here given a perfect acoustic treatment.

Nicola adjusts her tone and singing style for each song, while remaining always recognizably herself; vocally, she’s her own animal.  To get an idea, think a less over-the-top Shakira, a Maria McKee minus the twang, or a Melissa Reaves without the Janis-channelling.  I don’t know how old Nicola is, but she’s not a kid.  This is relevant because reviewers tend to froth all over the latest wunderkind with a beyond-her-years voice (today Joss Stone, yesterday Fiona Apple, etc.) long before those singers have come anywhere near being able to demonstrate staying power: can she follow up?  Can she write (or find the ideal material for her particular gifts)?  Can she grow, and does she have the charisma to take her audience with her?  Essentially: will the powerful voice and youthful passion be filled out with interesting, adult substance?  About Nicola, a veteran of South American tours and the Broadway stage, we do not have to ask these questions.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://www.templestark.com/blog Temple A. Stark

    EB – I have this up on Advance.net, too.

    A nice read.

    Can be found at this link.

  • abrielle

    when i heard avril’s songs im like woow wat a great canadian singer her first cd is like punk but her second cd is even better its about her life and its all true no lies at all i wish i was her i heard that she smokes but i dont believe that i dont need to no her personall stuff anyway she can tell her freinds that and stuff but why let much music no they will tell everyone who watches it i dont think her personall stuff should go on the news she doesn’t need problems i personally think that she is the best rock singer on earth!!! im not braging at all im just a great fan dont let anyone no your secrets or else they will spread it around like my freinds always do! your the best avril!

  • http://www.rjkoenig.com Julian Koenig

    I first saw
    Nicola
    at Penn Station last night (Mar 24th)
    – at about 8:30 PM: simply put – fantastic!

    Thank you for describing in
    technical terms the 3/4-time attack: it stopped me in
    my tracks
    (with apologies to LIRR).

    I looked around, and the 3/4-time attack had stopped a
    lot of other people as well: the crowd was stretched out in a half-moon –
    50 feet deep. Each listener was in his/her own world.

    This marvelous artist possesses even more potential for greatness than
    we’ve seen so far: Nicola has the Streisand special touch.

    She makes each member of the audience feel as if the performance is a
    special concert – just for him/her. When she looks at you, the music
    drills down inside you. She doesn’t so much set the listener rockin: Nicola’s music
    settles the listener. It’s as if she’s preaching a sermon.

    The demographics of her audience was truly remarkable: entranced by her
    music were messengers, Wall Street clerks and shoppers late getting home,
    the homeless, prosperous well-fed businessmen, and just about every
    sub-group which makes up New York City.

    And as is predictable, those with the least seemed to open their
    pocketbooks the most.

    Such is New York. Such was Nicola . . . Wow!

    (This review is available in pdf with a link back to the originating
    site at:


    rjkoenig.com/nicola/jon_sobel_review_17_nov_05.pdf