Nikka Costa has opened as special guest for such diverse acts as The Police, Coldplay, AC/DC, Lenny Kravitz, and Prince, the latter with whom she’s written songs as she has with Eric Clapton. She’s also headlined worldwide on her own and had hits, having made her first record when she was only eight years old back in 1980. That her father was the late Don Costa (producer and musical arranger for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr) isn’t something to be snuffed at either, not least because it led to this album being made.
On discovering the manuscript for her father arrangement of ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ (as recorded by Sinatra), Nikka got together with piano player Jeff Babko who revised the 50 piece orchestration for a string quartet, plus backing band and singers. Then, within the space of a day, she went into the recording studio with producers Justin Stanley (Eric Clapton, Prince, Beck) and Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Rolling Stones) and made Nikka & Strings, Underneath And In Between.
It’s an old school styled album but with a fresh modern recorded sound, even as it retains a live feel captured as the recordings were in 24 hours. It’s also predominantly a blues album, and as true musicologists will know the like of Muddy Waters and BB King are but recent heroes of the form compared to female singers like Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, whose sides were bought by both black and white audiences back when segregation was still rife in the land of the free.
Nikka Costa retraces those steps, with a touch of jazz here, some soul, using a controlled voice that wraps its cords mellow and passionate around the tunes, steady and commanding even when sings of frailty and sadness in what are predominantly torch songs and blues ballads. It is however, an upbeat album, with live vibe running throughout. Some of songs she’s recorded previously but with different arrangements. Nikka & Strings will not be to everyone’s tastes but for those who care to listen they are likely to find themselves admiring the recording.
Opening with a cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ the Prince tune that brought Sinead O’Connor worldwide fame might be considered a risky choice. Comparisons need to be made. Musically it’s rawer, like a slow blues take on Steely Dan‘s ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’’ and there’s a cerebral philosophical questing despair felt in the Sinead O’Conner version, Costa personalises it with an angrier more possessive lover’s role. Whereas, later when covering Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover You Should’ve Come Over’ there is a resigned deeper tone than the pleading nature of his, albeit the arrangement is similar.
There’s also a lot of sex on this record, though it’s probably not apparent to a passive listener. The sassy blues of ‘Love To Love You Less’ is a lyrical come on, ‘Cry To Me’ adds a dancing sensuality, and ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ strips bare the Marvin Gaye hit to a slower rhythm and blues grind. Though the one that really gets you is ‘Headfirst’ whose closet kissing cousins musically may be The Isley Brothers’ ‘Between The Sheets’ but from the other side of the sexual equation. Frankly, the title says it all. Lord only knows how the string quartet can play it so straight during the intro and outro.
The strings also swoon over the sweet jazzy version of ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ and they play an intricate compelling melody hook throughout ‘Arms Around You’ where harmonies add compellingly to Costa’s own voice. Prince returns in the form of co-write ‘Silver Tongue’ about whom she might well have written the lyrics. ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ is heavy on gin-soaked drama, Costa’s jazz phrased rolling vocals weaving in and out of the music, and with the closing ‘Stormy Weather’ she fortunately sidesteps the theatrical melodrama too often allowed to played out on this old classic.
You can put Nikka & Strings, Underneath And In Between and enjoy it passively as background music. Listen to it properly, and you’ll come to admire Nikka Costa’s voice immensely. Syllables precise or slurred, her choice of phrasing and the tones effected issue forth from a voice oozing with obviously highly trained but more so natural talent. I’m not sure her mainstream work would appeal as much, but I’d not falter in diving headfirst and listen to a similar such musical detour should she pass this way again.
Nikka & Strings, Underneath And In Between is officially released on 2nd June via Metropolis Records and can be pre-ordered at Amazon and on iTunes.