Nikki Jean - Pennies In A Jar

Nikki Jean
Nikki Jean Pennies In A Jar.jpg
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It can be a blessing and a curse to be presented by legends.  This proven marketing strategy to introduce a debut artist to the public tends to create immediate cynics: “Why him? Why her? “

In the case of Nikki Jean’s debut album, Pennies in a Jar, we have not one, but an array of classic American composers delivering songs through her “cute,” “sweet” package. Along with producers Sam Holland and Dave Katz, Jean composes lyrics atop a lengthy list of classic composers one would only see through sample usage or a Quincy Jones album.  S-Curve also partnered her with soulster Betty Wright who also chaperoned a young Joss Stone on her debut.  On the bubbling under or underground circuit, Jean also has a mild reputation for hip hop collaborations. Whether she whets your appetite depends on what brings a listener to her familiar musical wonderland.

It can be a blessing and a curse to be presented by legends.  This proven marketing strategy to introduce a debut artist to the public tends to create immediate cynics: “Why him? Why her? “

In the case of Nikki Jean’s debut album, Pennies in a Jar, we have not one, but an array of classic American composers delivering songs through her “cute,” “sweet” package. Along with producers Sam Holland and Dave Katz, Jean composes lyrics atop a lengthy list of classic composers one would only see through sample usage or a Quincy Jones album.  S-Curve also partnered her with soulster Betty Wright who also chaperoned a young Joss Stone on her debut.  On the bubbling under or underground circuit, Jean also has a mild reputation for hip hop collaborations. Whether she whets your appetite depends on what brings a listener to her familiar musical wonderland.

If a listener arrives to hear the latest offerings of those ‘60s and ‘70s classic composers of lore, artists like: Mann, Weil, King, Webb, and Dozier, then welcome. Here, you’ll find an ample vocalist capable of holding your attention long enough to see if it’s deserving of such refined craftsmanship. Not as melancholy as Suzanne Vega or as sexy as Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon, Jean’s voice is delicate and tender. While engaging, these gingerly approaches can too often prove Jean vocally one-dimensional.

Moments like “Steel and Feathers (Don’t Ever),” (a ballad from Bob Dylan’s vault) present a classic musical buildup with the usual blossoming choral supports, making the conditioned listener’s ear reach for the usual fitting lead vocal accompaniment. Unfortunately, it’s an aural conceit Jean cannot fulfill. Where Jean’s tone isn’t Dusty, Janis or Joss, a background vocalist assists to fill the void. The tune also suffers from a repetitive dry note in the chorus from Jean that never seems to get sweetened.

Where “Steel and Feathers” can be an outlier, some of the “oldies” arrangements work very well with the kiddie voice Jean uses most often. “My Love” hearkens to The Supremes in a way that complements her youthful bells while preserving tradition. Keeping with the child metaphors (and perhaps satisfying this inner child’s anticipation of The Smurfs movie), the guilty pleasure “La Di Da Di Da” is a morning “wake up” jam. Blame it on the Best Buy ad that uses it, but this cut is downright infectious. Accordingly, “Patty Crash” follows suit with the happy, summertime flow, one suspects will soon also show up in a roll of movie credits near you.

 Now for those Jean listeners looking for more of the hip hop sensibilities affiliated with The Roots, Lupe and Kanye, this album is not really what is expected. However, there is one totally out-of-place included here, “Million Star Hotel,” that may fulfill this need. Though, as much as one may believe Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is the most underrated emcee of all time, the inclusion of his agile rap doesn’t make this song belong on this album any more than it would without it (please take it with you on your way out).

Now where were we? Oh, the throwback album, yes. Well, “China” is a standout that slyly uses xylophone melody similar to MFSB’s “Something for Nothing” made famous by Jay-Z and it works beneath Nikki’s pleading lyric. This overall is one of the most impressive productions on the album and perhaps where the producers and musicians shine brightest. “What’s A Girl to Do,” Bacharach’s “Pennies in a Jar” and the incomparable Thom Bell’s “How to Ring a Bell” are winners all worthy of expanding the classic period’s audience if Jean is promoted properly. Having said that, considering Raphael Saadiq is on his second of these retro-soul collections and Cee-Lo is doing four million copies better than Saadiq with the same schtick, one questions whether Jean’s twist on this trend will forge a substantial audience for her artistry. One cannot ignore the impact Adele’s powerhouse package has raised the bar as well, consider her own label, Columbia passed on this project leaving it to S-Curve to save.

Commercial considerations aside, to Nikki Jean’s credit, the mostly 60s trip results in one rather solid debut album. Hopefully, Jean can follow this up without borrowing so heavily again from the golden era’s “gods” gifts on her future albums. Recommended.

By Reg Jones

 
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