No longer hamstrung by the pressures of a major label that tried to shoehorn her into ill-fitting mainstream pop stardom, self-proclaimed “Funky White Bitch” Nikka Costa finds a far more appropriate home on the re-launched Stax label for her new album Pebble to a Pearl. While the best moments from 2001’s solid Everybody Got Their Something (which plays in retrospect as a harbinger of the more fully-realized aesthetic that co-producer Mark Ronson found on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black) and 2005’s underwhelming can’tneverdidnothin’ were those that showcased her potential as a modern-day Betty Davis, Costa and her husband/producer Justin Stanley fully embrace their retro fetish on this collection, and it’s clear that they both have spot-on instincts when it comes to vintage funk and R&B styles.
Recorded live in-studio with the Daptones as the backing band, Costa and Stanley ensure that Pebble could pass for a record that’s just been unearthed from the Stax vaults: Whereas Ronson and Winehouse modernize these sounds by filtering them through a contemporary urban context, there’s nothing modern about the arrangements on Costa’s “Cry Baby” and “Keep Wanting More.” With their strutting clavinet loops, co-opted gospel piano licks and stuttering basslines, these are straight-up ‘60s soul and ‘70s funk tracks that are damn near flawless in their execution and their faithfulness to the conventions of those eras. In that regard, the record recalls Sharon Jones & the DAP-Kings’s Naturally and 100 Days, 100 Nights more so than Winehouse’s albums.
Like Jones, Costa has both the vocal chops and the balls to really attack her material. Always a compelling live performer, Costa was often overshadowed by the slick production on her previous two albums; here, her vocals are foregrounded in the mix, and the depth and range of her performances really shine. From the fierce snarl of “Can’t Please Everybody” and “Keep Pushin’” and the swagger of the title track to the wry, subtle humor she brings to the standout “Love to Love You Less,” Costa has never sounded better on record.
It’s her performances, then, that compensate for the album’s occasionally uninspired songwriting. “Love to Love You Less” and lead single “Stuck to You” both hinge on clever turns of phrase and wordplays, but the lyrics on “Cry Baby,” “Someone for Everyone” and “Keep Pushin’” come across like rote genre exercises that lack Costa’s typical personality and verve. Because the record is so preoccupied with groove and style, it lacks the memorable hooks of singles like “Like a Feather” and “I Don’t Think We’ve Met.” Still, that’s a relatively minor quibble for an album that finds an artist of Costa’s distinct, singular talent finally enjoying the freedom to follow her muse and play to her real strengths.