When you’re the goddaughter of Frank Sinatra, there are naturally going to be some expectations about you. Often times, though, these expectations are not exactly fair.
When Nikka Costa emerged in 2001 with Everybody Got Their Something, no one really knew what to make of her: here was a beautiful white girl with an epic wail of a voice, retouching lots of classic soul templates with a slightly modern edge. What Costa was doing wasn’t anything new or different, but at the start of the new millennium, such a drastic divergence from the radio/MTV norm raised more eyebrows than celebratory wine glasses, even if it did inadvertently set up a template for the countless parade of British white girls with big voices for years to come (you’re welcome Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Duffy). Single “Like a Feather” was keyboard funk at its minimalist best, and “Everybody Got Their Something” — though not a hit at the time — was perfect enough of a pop song that everything from movie trailers to Arrested Development wound up licensing it at one time or another. Yet all the anticipation surrounding Costa’s “grown up” debut never really got sales off the ground, which is perhaps why it took Costa four years to follow up that record, the brightly-colored yet surprisingly forgettable Can’tneverdidnothin’ emerging in 2005 and making even less of a sales impact than its predecessor.
Yet Costa wasn’t easy to write off, because even though the sales never fully materialized, she still had a melodic sense that was unparalleled to some of her contemporaries, and Can’tneverdidnothin’s leadoff track “Till I Get to You” was one of the best, catchiest songs to ever be released since the turn of the new century (seriously), its lack of single consideration made all the more surprising. So, seven years since her adult debut album, Costa is back with an important change: she’s now signed to Stax Records. Though the label that one is signed to rarely defines an artist’s sound, this is one significant exception. Since Stax is fresh off of a massive anniversary celebration, it feels revitalized enough to take a chance on Costa, and if you were ever wondering about her retro-soul leanings before, we are now greeted with Pebble to a Pearl, a throwback to ’70s soul that gives absolutely no concessions to any post-millennial fad. This is raw pop-funk with a sassy edge, and, more importantly, it sounds like Costa is finally at home.
Opening with the fantastic “Stuck to You”, you know Costa is ready to redefine herself. Riding a simple backbeat and an infectious Motown piano lick, the song sounds like it was ripped right out of the early ’70s, its feel-good vibe absolutely contagious (especially once the female backup vocals come riding in). The track gets every drum tap, cymbal hit, and horn blast just right, and much credit goes to producer Justin Stanley, Costa’s guitarist who also produced the overexcited Can’tneverdidnothin’. Songs like “Without Love” just radiate sunshine, the synths so perfectly dated and fluid that there’s a chance that this song actually would brighten your mood if you were having a day, even as Costa lightly sings “I got blue skies / And dry eyes / I wouldn’t miss a thing / Without love I have everything / But you”.
Yet, the record’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness: Costa here is trying so hard to make an authentic ’70s soul record that — though she succeeds at that goal — she also loses some of the bite that she’s known for. No longer are we treated to raging songs of romantic conflict like “Push & Pull” or even the full-throttle belting that is so often her trademark. Instead, we have an album that, though undeniably enjoyable, is also fairly docile. Tracks like “Crybaby”, though rife with historical accuracy, prove to be more style than substance, the hooks never digging in deep enough, all while the lyrics — clichéd all, but still well wrangled — have somewhat of a dismissive quality to them. For every minimalist funk triumph like “Keep Wanting More”, we get a take-it-or-leave-it weeper of a ballad like “Someone for Everyone”. The nearly hour-length running time certainly doesn’t help matters, but when you’re treated with tracks as good as the beautifully paced “Loving You” (not a remake of the Minnie Ripperton disco-era classic, sadly) along the way, it’s really hard to find reason to complain.
At the end of the day, however, Pebble to a Pearl is still a great record, radiating and capturing a nostalgic vibe that would sound faked and forced in the hands of others. Yet Costa’s dire love of this golden age of soul is what carries the record through, herself stepping down from her usual vocal fireworks in order to let the disc’s atmosphere take center stage, a subtle yet powerful move that proves key to its success. This record does have a kindred spirit, it should be noted, in Jamie Lidell’s Jim, yet another revisionist ’70s-pop disc that makes a lot of the same moves and yields a lot of the same excellent results. Yet, both records remain so in love with their genre fascinations that, sometimes, it feels that they’re not grounded in genuinely masterful songs, instead focused on trying to get that all-important vibe just right.
When they work, however, the results are just magic, and Pebble to a Pearl is no exception.