NIIKA Makes a Striking, Multifaceted Full-Length Debut with 'Close But Not Too Close'

Photo: Maren Celest / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

The Uzbekistan-born, Chicago-raised NIIKA combines art-pop and exotic jazz stylings to create a deeply rewarding listening experience on Close But Not Too Close.

Close But Not Too Close


15 May 2020

Some artists wear their influences on their sleeves. For Nika Nemirovsky – known professionally as NIIKA – the influences seem never-ending, flowing from one to another, making it difficult to pin down a particular style. And that's perfectly fine. This blurring of genres on Close But Not Too Close makes for a stunning full-length debut, and the lack of a style in which to pigeonhole her creates a unique and all-too-rare listening experience.

Born in Uzbekistan when the Soviet Union was collapsing and Uzbekistan was yet to re-establish itself as a nation, NIIKA and her family emigrated to Chicago when she was only a year old. Settling into the immigrant community of her new world, NIIKA's childhood was infused with an eclectic blend of art and culture. It was apparent on her 2017 debut EP, Honest Dancing. Still, while that album seemed a bit more grounded in traditional arrangements – there's a definite guitar base to those songs – Close But Not Too Close sees her soaring into new territory, not moored by traditional arrangements.

The feedback-tinged rumblings that begin the album on the first track, "For the Key", signal a slightly forbidding atmosphere. But NIIKA's voice, which seems to embrace non-Western scales and Indian Carnatic music, is a multi-leveled wonder, suggesting both jazz and Eastern folk. The music starts and stops, indicating a stubborn insistence to remain distant from the concept of traditional pop/rock. But there's simmering jazz, exotic folk, and smoldering soul all over this song. Vocally, NIIKA seems to straddle lines that fall somewhere between Bjork, Kate Bush, and recent belters like Bent Knee's Courtney Swain.

Shifting gears once again, "Girl of an Arc" – a song NIIKA describes in the press materials as "my reflection on these cyclical patterns throughout history, and the unfailing resurgence of revolution" – sticks to a slightly more traditional template. Which is to say, the beat – despite its unusual time signature – remains initially moored to the song, as if NIIKA is trying gamely to "follow the rules". But it's not long before some ethereal, Jeff Buckley-esque vocalizing and stomping guitar riffs ease their way inside. The arrangement, as in most of this wonderful, unique album, is in a constant state of shift. Concepts come in, stay for a while, and are soon replaced with other ones. The record is nothing if not boring.

While there's a distinct art-pop element to Close But Not Too Close – and even slight elements of progressive rock – NIIKA loves to infuse the album with plenty of shimmering soul. "Witness" is a spectacular slow jam with instrumentation that's refreshingly organic. Gleaming electric guitars live peacefully alongside a variety of percussion accompaniment and cloying strings, all gliding on top of NIIKA's striking lead and harmony vocals. "Blue Smoke" travels along similar lines, with both songs sounding very much like an intimate living room jam session and not something robotically concocted in a sterile recording studio.

Teetering between jazz and Tropicalia, songs like "Oh Delila" and "The Cage" show an impressive range, and "Black Mountain", with its jittery beats and chiming guitar figures, recalls laid-back alt-rock that wouldn't sound out of place on an adventurous 1990s college radio station. Furthermore, the clarity of the mix throughout all nine songs brings everything into deep focus – this is a headphone album of the first order.

Close But Not Too Close concludes with the album's most tender, resonant moment – "Dream Song" strips away most of the instrumentation of the previous songs. NIIKA's voice is accompanied solely by electric guitar and flute (the latter instrument providing a solo, doubled by vocals). True to its title, the song is an ethereal, dream-like experience that closes the album like a jazzy lullaby. On this wildly eclectic, expertly crafted album, NIIKA has proven herself a force to be reckoned with, offering seemingly endless musical ideas that will hopefully spill over into subsequent releases.






'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.