Nikka Costa: Reviving The Sound Of Stax

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Wednesday's Pick

  • Song: "Bullets in the Sky"
  • Artist: Nikka Costa
  • CD: Pebble to a Pearl
  • Genre: Soul
Nikka Costa 300

Nikka Costa's "Bullets in the Sky" fits neatly into Stax Records' legacy of message songs by sounding more reverential than referential. courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Southern-fried romance has long been a hallmark of the Stax Records sound, but the legendary soul label also showcased notable social commentaries from the likes of The Staple Singers and the Rance Allen Group. Nikka Costa, whose new album Pebble to a Pearl just came out through the newly reactivated Stax, extends the label's tradition of message songs with the stirring "Bullets in the Sky."

Sung from the perspective of a mother losing her children, Costa addresses the war in Iraq while sticking to a human scale. "You can say that the war is over / Try telling that to a mother," she sings, before capturing the unsettling silence that follows the sudden death of a loved one.

Costa's knack for channeling old-school R&B should come as no surprise to those who savored her first two albums, which summon the crackling intensity of Janis Joplin and the worldly sass of Betty Wright. But make no mistake: Costa avoids playing vintage dress-up. For all the song's analog '70s embellishments — an insistent keyboard riff, fuzzy guitars — the arrangement doesn't attempt to replicate the Stax sound, as martial snare-drum beats evolve into a boom-bap rhythm. It all helps "Bullets in the Sky" fit neatly into Stax's legacy of message songs, while sounding more reverential than referential.

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