Nikka Costa has somehow managed to remain off the mainstream radar since her U.S. debut album was released in 2001. In light of the success seen by artists such as Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, and Duffy, I don't understand how that is possible. Not to directly compare Costa to those women (enough people have done so already), but they've proven the market is strong for old-school soul and R&B music. And yet Costa can't seem to crack the Billboard Top 100, despite a trio of albums attesting to her strengths as a singer, songwriter, and musician.
Her latest offering is Pebble to a Pearl, released by Stax Records, and it just might be her best yet. Honestly, the comparisons I've seen to Winehouse and Duffy are just an easy way to throw Costa into the neo-Motown bag. To my ears, a more apt point of reference would be one of James Brown's funky divas like Marva Whitney or Lyn Collins. I'd even go out on a limb and say that at her wildest she evokes the unhinged, raw sexuality of Betty Davis. Beyond female influences, fans of Lenny Kravitz and Prince (both of whom she has worked with) should have no trouble digging her.
Pebble to a Pearl features an earthier, looser vibe than its predecessors. Everybody Got Their Something (2001) had catchier hooks, while can'tneverdidnothin' (2005) sported harder grooves. The new album is much more subtle and mature, with hardly the slightest concession to contemporary trends. Many of the songs achieve the very delicate balancing act of sounding both spontaneous and carefully arranged. Hammond organ and acoustic pianos are all over these tracks. The drumming and percussion is live. Horns snake in and out of the arrangements. Above it all, front and center, are Costa's remarkable vocals – more relaxed and warm than ever before.
All but one of the songs was written or co-written by Costa. Much of the collaboration was done with her husband, Justin Stanley, who also produced. The album begins with the fun pop/soul "Stuck To You," which milks a minimalist groove for all it's worth. The more full-bodied R&B workout "Can't Please Everybody" follows, and the title sums up the song. Maybe it's a subtle dig at some of the critics who have panned her work. Utterly beyond my comprehension, I saw some truly vicious reviews of her last album – one major publication going so far as to say it sounded like the soundtrack to a beer commercial.
The highlights on Pebble to a Pearl run the gamut from sultry ballads to joyous funk blasts. Perhaps my favorite on the album is "Damn I Said It First," a propulsive groove with a spaced-out instrumental bridge. "Without Love" rolls along with the effervescence of a mid-'70s Stevie Wonder tune. Percolating and churning with an irresistible rhythm, "Cry Baby" lands on some unpredictable chord changes. The hardest-hitting track, "Keep Wanting More," brings to mind the funkiest stuff on can'tneverdidnothin'.
The only clunker on the entire album is the closing track, "Bullets In the Sky." With such a different feel than the rest of the album, I don't know how it made the cut. It reminds me strongly of that old Cardigans song, "Lovefool." Yeesh. The war protest lyrics don't fit any better than the aural vibe. It comes out of left field, but luckily it's easy to just turn off the CD after the outstanding penultimate track, a cover of Johnny Guitar Watson's "Loving You." The tightly controlled, slow-burn tension of that performance could have made a killer finale to the album.
Even though commercial recognition continues to elude Nikka Costa, it doesn't really matter as long as she is able to keep releasing music this strong. If you're new to Costa, give the songs on Pebble to a Pearl some breathing room. Their strengths emerge over repeated listening.