Nikka Costa's Far-Flung 'Pebble' Makes a Splash

Costa recorded
Costa recorded "Pebble to a Pearl" with a live studio band for an authentic vintage sound. (Fantasy Records/umg)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

For somebody constructed of little more than tattooed skin and bones, Amy Winehouse sure casts a considerable shadow. Gotta be the bouffant!

Every white girl singing retro soul in Winehouse's turbulent wake has been compared to the British diva, from Adele and Duffy on down. The "latest" to run the vis-a-vis gantlet is Nikka Costa, whose head is probably spinning, given that she got there first: Costa's U.S. debut, 2001's "Everybody Got Their Something," was an intriguing vintage-soul-flavored album co-produced by Mark Ronson. The same guy who, this past February, won the producer of the year Grammy for his work with Winehouse.

Alas, Costa is no Winehouse, though saying that is like comparing apples to Grand Marnier -- and not only because their singing and songwriting voices are so dissimilar. Whereas Winehouse's "Back to Black" featured vintage R&B and girl-group pop dressed up with modernized digital beats, Costa's latest, "Pebble to a Pearl" (produced by her husband, Justin Stanley), is a straight-up black-music flashback that could have been cut in an earlier era.

Literally: "Pebble" was recorded with a live band in the studio, on two-inch tape, in analog -- which is to say, they really went old school. How appropriate, then, that the album, recorded when Costa didn't have a record deal, is being released by Stax, the late, great Southern soul label that's recently come back to life.

Echoing Motown and Sly and the Family Stone as much as it does that gritty old brand of Stax soul, "Pebble to a Pearl" is a free-flowing set that's at once fiery and funky, with a rawness that wasn't apparent on Costa's earlier, slicker U.S. albums. (The 36-year-old daughter of Rat Pack producer/arranger Don Costa has been recording internationally since she was a child.)

The album is full of rhythmic swagger; unfortunately, it's also full of forgettable lyrics, beginning with frisky album-opener "Stuck to You," in which Costa sings, in that sultry voice of hers: "If you wanna live, I'll be your old age." Her songwriting is pedestrian, whether she's writing about love ("Someone for Everyone") or war ("Bullets in the Sky") or serving up hackneyed self-help mantras ("Keep Pushin' ").

Still, there's no shortage of musical high points here, including a smoldering cover of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Loving You" and the funky strut of "Cry Baby," a kiss-off in which Costa sounds devilishly ambivalent as she taunts an ex. She also shines on the title track, a female empowerment anthem that channels Stevie Wonder via Carl Carlton. She may not be the future -- or former -- Amy Winehouse, but Nikka Costa is a bad mama jama in her own right.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Pebble to a Pearl," "Cry Baby," "Loving You"

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