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Tuesday, October 14, 2008


ModMusic Week: Nikka Costa

The record industry, gasping for air in the face of internet downloading and a changing market, seems more desperate than ever to replicate the few commercial successes they have. Perhaps this explains the never-ending stream of Amy Winehouse knockoffs, both good (Duffy, Estelle, Adele) and bad (Sharleen Spiteri). One would be unfair, however, to group Nikka Costa among their number; the American soul siren was working retro-soul years before Winehouse rejected rehabilitation. Sadly, there's a reason that Costa has remained in relative obscurity while other female artists found success in musical archeology. Despite obvious talent and a throaty, rich voice, Costa's songwriting simply lacks the hooks that fueled the catchy infectiousness of Motown.

Don't mistake me, Costa certainly can find a groove. On her latest disc, Pebble To A Pearl (out today), Costa works her rhythm section out, with heavy sax-and-bass jams that recalls Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Junior Walker. The opening track, "Stuck To You," has a muddy, sexy stomp powering the melody, and "Cry Baby" could easily be a 70's-era Stevie Wonder joint, a la "Boogie On Reggae Woman." But the difference between Costa and those artists is where those grooves take them; Wonder and Reeves built chords into emotional symphonies of sound. On Pearl, the elements never congeal into a larger whole. "Love To Love You Less," a bluesy vamp of female independence, should be a masterstroke; instead, it listlessly spins in on itself, searching for the fierce energy that the lyrics demand.

There's a serious musician and songwriter inside Costa, and it should be noted that her music has an authenticity increasingly difficult to find in today's musical marketplace. But I don't see why anyone, faced with the options of Back To Black and Rockferry, would ever choose Pebble To A Pearl instead. Costa might be a perfectly fine addition to the retro-diva movement, but I double she'll ever be its headliner.

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