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.