As much as we may need to pump the breaks on the throwback soul train, unfortunately there’s no derailment on the immediate horizon. While UK female artists such as Duffy, Adele, and the late Amy Winehouse are considered the queens of the oft-pilfered subgenre, Minnesota vocalist Nikki Jean swiftly puts in her bid for the US variation of the title. Coming out of the shadows of her tenure in the indie hip-hop outfit Nouveau Riche and her feature on Lupe Fiasco’s 2008 single “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” vocalist Nikki Jean is insistent on exhuming the remains from the mausoleum of pop music’s yesteryear with her debut album Pennies In A Jar.
On paper, the concept for Pennies In A Jar sounds titillating: songstress criss-crosses the country, breaking bread with various heralded maestros of the Brill Building, Philly soul, Motown, and beyond. With production by Sam Hollander (Katy Perry, Train, Tom Jones), luminaries such as Burt Bacharach, Lamont Dozier, Carole King, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Webb all vow to anoint their Pennies In A Jar with their Midas touch, co-writing with Jean on the album’s 12 tracks. Sounds great, right? However, as with all things that sound too good to be true, there’s a gaping discrepancy between practice and premise here.
On the opening track “How To Unring A Bell,” Jean teams up with Philly soul legend Thom Bell. While the production value here is tolerable, the lyricism leaves much to be desired: “Like a bomb when it kills/ like the milk when it spills/ like a baby when it’s born. Yesterday, I could dream of a rose and a crown/ but today, I feel the thorns.” Luckily, the follow up track redeems Jean’s musical misstep. “Steel And Feathers (Don’t Ever)” finds Jean collaborating with folk God Bob Dylan in a beautiful marriage of lyric and arrangement. Jean puts on her Memphis best here, buttressed by the most soulful backing vocal section, a crooning lap steel guitar, and a stirring B-3 organ.
Lamont Dozier chimes in on the affable motor city inspired “My Love,” replete with orchestral bells and the patented infectious Motown backbeat. But the shining jewel in this crown comes in the form of the charming title track, co-written by 60s AM radio pop king Burt Bacharach. Jean floats effortlessly over a sublime bed of whirling strings, cooing on a cloud of blissful delight. Though Jean’s performance is commendable, it’s clear that the true star here is the majestic musical arrangement. It goes without saying that Jean’s debut definitely has some commendable moments. Unfortunately, they’re overshadowed by cutesy melodies, trite vintage production/ songwriting techniques, and a mediocre-at-best vocal approach.
Conjuring images of teased bouffants, taffeta dresses, and birdcage microphones, Pennies In A Jar feels more like a contrived last-ditch attempt to cash in on a subgenre in decline. While Jean plays the ardent archaeologist cracking open a time capsule chocked full of 60’s beach music, American Bandstand fare, and other musical notions from a bygone era, Pennies In A Jar is a patchwork quilt that has more loose ends than even the authors of the great American songbook could handle. You’d be better off listening to Corrine Bailey Rae interpret former Spice Girl Emma Bunton’s 2004 album Free Me.
– Rico a.k.a. Superbizzee