Album Review: Nikka & Strings – Underneath And In Between (Nikka Costa)

By Chris Marshall, edited by Cameron Arndt
Nikka & Strings: Underneath and In Between is a varied collection of songs featuring emotive and honest vocals, a talented string quartet, tasteful piano and a perfectly in-sync rhythm section. The album has a coherence that can be lacking these days and shows off the singer’s experience and maturity through old classics and re-worked originals.
I’ll be honest, up until very recently I had never heard of Nikka Costa. Whilst I may not have heard of her, for the past 40 years she has built a loyal following and the respect of an industry notorious for casting talent aside in favour of something new. This shows in the artists she has collaborated with over years; from Prince and Ray Charles to Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz. With a string of successful albums under her belt, the soul singer has decided to dip her toes into something a little more personal and reserved.
The opener of the album is also the single, a take on the Prince classic Nothing Compares 2U. Try to get Sinead O’Connor out of your head because Costa makes this song her own. With a loose but controlled feel, the song builds and swells beautifully with the subtle use of a choir towards the end to give the famous chorus it’s full impact. The strings get their first proper outing as the song draws to a close, highlighting their expertly arranged melodies and harmonies. The album then moves on through new arrangements of Costa originals and covers such as Love to Love You Less and Ain’t That Peculiar. The string quartet again give the tracks a lovely warm feel that you can’t emulate any other way.

 Speaking of the quartet, the rest of the band deserve a mention. As a musician used to working with varied and often multiple other musicians and instruments, it’s refreshing to hear an album that clearly lays out the blueprint of it’s sound and then sticks to it. You have a rhythm section comprised of drums and bass (sometimes electric and other times classic upright for the American Songbook numbers), a piano and the aforementioned string quartet. Strangely, there are no guitars present on this album. Usually I would think this would detract due to scope and versatility that the guitar can provide a record, however here, somehow it is not missed. Apart from some keyboards, a small choir and some trombone, the album never moves from this set up. By keeping the instrumentation minimal and low-key, it allows for Costa’s stand out vocals to take centre stage and lets us to really listen to what she has to say. Produced by her husband, Justin Stanley, and Bob Clearmountain, the entire album was recorded in one day. Yes, that’s right. One. Day.
At this point, I feel it’s important to let you know about Costa’s roots in the often overlooked work of arrangers. Her father was Don Costa, a legend in his own right, and frequent collaborator for Mr Frank Sinatra. He is responsible for the orchestral arrangements of some of the best of the American songbook. I am in no doubt that this album wants to tap in to those established roots and show what the power of a good arrangement can do for a song. This is nowhere more apparent than on the Sinatra classic Come Rain or Come Shine (originally arranged by…yep….Don Costa). This, along with a later track on the album Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying, remind me very much of the Ray Charles’ covers that feature on his album, The Genius of Ray Charles (1959). I’m almost certain that the same string arrangement is used in both versions of Don’t Let The Sun…, which is fine by me as the arrangements on those songs are impeccable, and if it ain’t broke!
I haven’t delved too deep yet into Costa’s vocals. After listening to the first couple of tracks, I was afraid of becoming bored by her voice. I was thankfully proved wrong. Costa’s versatility as a singer is matched by her ability to emote the context of the words she is singing. This is most notable on Lover You Should Have Come Over and Cry To Me. She has clearly spent years honing the craft of telling stories through her voice.
A noticeable change comes in head first (wink) with the Costa original, Headfirst. The string arrangement is jarring and slightly unsettling and whilst there is no actual discord, the melodies are at odds with each other. The drums come in and out sporadically, never fully completing a beat whilst Costa’s double tracked and effects-laden vocals soar over the top. Synth and keyboard take precedence over the softer, mellower piano. This is literally a stand out track due to it being totally unique compared to the rest of the album. And I like it.
Overall, this album takes enough of what made her father’s classic arrangements so memorable, used this knowledge and pedigree to her advantage by re-working her own material (something I’d love to hear other musicians attempt) and has created a sound that perfectly compliments and highlights her gorgeous tone and style. I think this record works great as a gateway, I’d definitely recommend delving into some of her father’s work after listening to truly appreciate the style of music that is being put on show here. When listening, listen out for the subtle beauty that can be heard in the string arrangements (I’d list tracks but it’s practically every song), and the way in which the piano, drums and bass work so perfectly together to give the songs, both original and covers, a laid-back feel that will have you wanting to pour another martini and put on your best suit or dress.
‘Nikka & Strings’ is available from June 2nd 2017.
Chris Marshall is the trombonist with Red Pine Timber Company, who are gearing up to release their second album this year. Marshall also released his debut solo EP, So Long, last year.
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