Album review: NIKKA & STRINGS – Underneath And In Between

NIKKA & STRINGS – Underneath And In Between

Metropolis Recordings [Release date 02.6.17]

Despite a background as a teen star, a high profile backing singer and a songwriter who has worked with the likes of Clapton and Prince, Nikka Costa still has a way to go before carving out her on niche.

While her previous two albums and an EP shifted her focus from funk and soul to pop, this album places the emphasis on her interpretive abilities, over a wide variety of material that also includes a couple of strong self penned songs.

Her shifting musical persona is mirrored by her ability to phrase eloquently and with perfect diction, while when she gets low down and sensual, as on the Eartha Kitt styled ‘Love To Love You Less’,  she can be catch scratch raw while purring like a kitten.

Ironically it’s her versatility that is probably the biggest problem here, as she might struggle to engage a crossover audience with an album that is grounded in soul, but thinks nothing of veering into cabaret, torch songs, blues, and Motown.

On balance, the album fails to push her unique phrasing consistently enough to deliver her own essential DNA. In fact, from ‘Silver Tongue’ onwards –  a lyrical co-write with Prince – the album gently comes to rest in a MOR vein that dissipates what has gone before.

In spite of a few emotive highs – most notably on her heartfelt version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, especially when she digs deep on Jeff Buckley’s ‘Love Should’ve Come Over’ and makes the most of her range on the nuanced stuttering rhythm of ‘Cry To Me’ – Nikka is a versatile singer in search of her own style.

Both ‘Silver Tongue’ and her version of Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying’ for example, are too similar to generate spark, and when she does extend herself on the closing ‘Stormy Weather’, it’s probably one retro classic too many.

Nikka Costa tells us that: “‘Underneath and In Between’ wasn’t even meant to be an album”. And at times this CD does sound like an aggregation of wide ranging musical ideas pulled together in the 24 hours it took to record and glue it together with a string quartet.

Both the diversity of material and different vocal attacks mean she sometimes struggles to find a meaningful equilibrium. For example, there’s a gulf between the straight jacket restraint of her version of the Sinatra chestnut ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine and the irrepressible sexuality of ‘Headfirst’, which is everything the rest of the album isn’t.

And that’s a shame, as she really get inside the latter with high register phrasing over some adventurous strings. She cleverly builds up the tension, and subsequently resolves it with a descending chorus that comes to gently rest on the song’s title.

There’s enough good stuff on ‘Underneath and In Between’ to suggest Nikka Costa has plenty more to give. What’s lacking at present is a coherent musical direction that is both original and exciting enough to amplify her undoubted vocal talent. ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

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