One of the essential elements in creating art is risk. The mainstream music scene with a few exceptions, has been lacking risk for some time now. So much so that so that I retreated to the independent scene to find the final frontier for artists who are still out there taking risks and trying to push the music to the next level.
Nikki Jean, a young singer-songwriter-musician based out of Philadelphia, was making her way through the indie hip-hop scene, first as a member of the group Nouveau Riche, then as a featured vocalist and lyricist for Lupe Fiasco’s Grammy-nominated album, The Cool. She could’ve easily stayed maintained course and continued to make her mark in the rap game and that would’ve been fine for most artists.
Instead, she took a risk.
Inspired by her idol, Irving Berlin (and with a huge assist from Nona Hendryx), Nikki decided to forge a career as a solo artist and more importantly, as a songwriter. She could’ve dived into the already-full pool of R&B chanteuses playing off her looks and singing songs with forgettable verses and big-beat hooks.
Instead, she took another risk.
At the urging of her producer, Sam Hollender, Nikki reached out to some of the greatest songwriters of all-time. Not to write a song for her, but to write a song with her! Would the minds behind some of the most popular songs ever written return a phone call or email from a relatively unknown artist?
Much to everyone’s surprise, the answer was yes!
By the time calls were made, emails were returned, and frequent flier miles were exhausted, Nikki found herself with twelve direct collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb (‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix, ‘Wichita Lineman’), Lamont Dozier of the Motown hit machine Holland-Dozier-Holland, Paul Williams (writer for hits by The Carpenters and Three Dog Night), Carly Simon, Bobby Braddock (songwriter behind the monster country hits for George Jones and Tammy Wynette), Jeff Barry (co-writer of ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’ and the epic ‘Be My Baby’); Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (‘You Lost That Loving Feeling’), Carole King, Thom Bell (producer/songwriter for The Delfonics, Stylistics, and The Spinners) and Bob Dylan.
You heard me correct. BOB DYLAN.
Pennies In A Jar is a brilliant collection of songs that introduces the girl group sound, Motown, classic pop, country and Philly Soul to a new audience.
The sweeping, orchestral pop of the late 60’s and 70’s is represented here by two of the architects of the genre. The title track is everything you would expect from a Burt Bacharach production: Every note perfectly pronounced and emphasized. You also have to have real chops to sing with Burt and Nikki knocks it out of the part. Its a song that can easily fit into the canon of work that he’s done with Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and countless others. One of Burt’s contemporaries, Jimmy Webb, composed the music for the sweeping ‘China’ and Jean captures the same dramatic weight of Webb’s best work.
Nikki teams up with two of soul music’s production giants for two tracks. With the familiar piano intro, the hand claps, pistol-like snare drum kick-in and a vocal that would make Diana Ross take notice, ‘My Love’, co-written with Lamont Dozier, is Motown 4.0. I don’t know if he’s retired or people are just foolish enough not to give him a call, but after you listen to ‘How To Unring A Bell’, I really hope he actively makes records again. With spot on lyrics and delivery by Jean, it reaffirms yet again that Thom Bell is one of the greatest producers and arrangers of the last 50 years, if not ever.
The great Brill Building writers are also represented here. Nikki puts a 21st Century spin on the romantic conflict faced in those classic Ronettes and Crystals songs with ‘What’s A Girl Supposed To Do’. Nikki plays Gerry Goffin to Carole King to pop perfection on ‘Rockaway’ (King wrote the chorus while Jean supplied the verses). Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (who wrote hits for everyone from The Drifters to The Animals) pair up with Nikki on the almost hymn-like ‘Mercy Of Love’.
The country undercurrent on the album comes from an unlikely source. ‘Steel And Feathers (Don’t Ever) was a Dylan lyric that he started back during the Shot Of Love sessions that Jean ended up finishing. The result is country-tinged gem with a gospel undertow. Jean also manages to capture Dylan’s vocal nuances perfectly without slipping into imitation or parody. On paper, ‘Million Star Motel’ is an odd marriage between Nikki, country songwriting legend Bobby Braddock, Black Thought Of The Roots and Lupe Fiasco. But considering that Braddock wrote Toby Keith’s monster hit, ‘I Wanna Talk About Me’, it all makes sense – and it works.
Pennies In A Jar also manages to be whimsical too. With a banjo as the lead instrument, ‘La Di Da Di Da’ – co-written by Luigi Creatore – who co-wrote ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ – has an almost child-like optimism, best summed up by the lines:
Clouds may come
Storms may blow
But after the rain
Look up to the rainbow
‘Patty Crash’ is one of those songs that would’ve easily fit on 70’s AM radio. What makes it unique in that Paul Williams – who also wrote for The Muppets – turns what should have been a slightly cynical lyric into classic Top 40 gold.
The album concludes with ‘Sex Lies & Sunshine’, a song that Nikki and Carly Simon worked on at her home on Martha’s Vineyard. Lyrically, its classic Carly: Introspective, rich in detail, and sparing no one. Jean’s smart arrangement really gives the chance for the lyrics really breathe too.
Pennies In A Jar is a much welcome breath of fresh air in a highly uninspired music scene. Nikki Jean manages to walk honor those came before her, while at the same time, is trying to elevate the pop music standard that is dangerously low right now. The good news is that she’s going to be hitting the road to support the album. I highly recommend that you pick up the CD and check out the live shows.
It’s time to bring real musicianship and craft back to pop music.
Pennies In A Jar is available now. You can download through Itunes and Amazon. To find out more about Nikki Jean tour dates, go http://www.nikkijeanmusic.com.