NOTE: 2020k is delighted to announce it’s exclusive interview with Nikki Jean coming! CLICK HERE to read it! There will also be a contest for a giveaway of the album for a few selected individuals – if you’d like to participate, please like the official 2020k Facebook page for more information as it becomes available about the contest and ways to win!
Nikki Jean and her fan base have been longing for the release of her debut album Pennies in a Jar for a long time. Through it, we’ve seen several music projects, collaborations, cookie sales, apartment moving, living room tours, meetups, and even personalized Christmas cards from the singer, written out to fans who submitted their names and addresses before a selected cut off date. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s finally upon us. During that time, Nikki set out across country to write and record with some of the world’s most legendary songwriters to make what one may call the 21st century version of “Tapestry” by Carole King. On July 12th, 2011, the debut album was released into the world and it’s one heck of a collection
To start, the biggest stand out to Pennies in a Jar is that a lot of what went into mixing and creating space within the mixes doesn’t have so much to do with fancy outboard/plug-in dynamic settings and techniques, but rather the use of creating a broad and beautiful stereo image with the use of panning. For example, the stereo-paired guitars in the Bob Dylan co-penned “Steel and Feathers (Don’t Ever)” are complimented by an overdubbed guitar panned left and a piano panned right, all the while having a small stereo choir of backup singers give Nikki’s centered voice an extra glow.
The bulk of the album features the main vocal line, kick, and snare giving themselves to the traditional method of staying centered throughout the song and ultimately achieve their goal of acquiring the most focus throughout the song by having the dry signal in mono, but still maintaining a sense of multi-direction with the help of stereo reverb and delay to subtly spread out their sounds to the left and right speakers.
Further using alternate techniques on creating space and making a mix work appears more clearly on the Bobby Braddock aided “Million Star Motel (Featuring Lupe Fiasco & Black Thought of The Roots)”. The gear gets a little more creative in that toward the end of the song there is an automated reverb and slapback delay that slowly becomes more prominent at the end of each vocal line until the last phrase of the song becomes fully engulfed in the elegant settings and eventually spreading through other instruments of the track. It’s one of the greatest mixing moments that this record possesses and makes for a smooth ending, where as some of the other tracks, such as “How to Unring a Bell” give for a little too much of an abrupt ending that leaves you wanting more.
Speaking of “How to Unring a Bell” co-penned with Thom Bell, it does an astounding job at opening up the album as it gives you a little taste of everything that’s featured on it. The various melodies unfold in a fluent manner, going from aggression through the verses to drawn out silky strings and keyboards giving a platform for lamenting some of the more simple, but effective lyrics of the 41 minute record. “Yesterday, I never thought you could cry. Such a shame I can never say that again. Yesterday, I never told you goodbye. Such a shame I can never say that again.” It’s a song sung of lost love, but one that knows it’s lessons and holds brightness throughout it, as most of the album does.
Lyrics aren’t the only bright and hopeful aspects of the debut record. Crisp high frequencies surround the project as a whole, making it’s early Motown influence more apparent. The old school sonics heavily affected the throwback mixing of this record, being mostly reminiscent to the uplifting sounds of early Supremes (Think “Where Did Our Love Go” & “Baby Love”). Strip Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” from it’s darkness combine the sound of other modern British pop acts and you also have a taste of the sonics that Pennies possesses. It’s most apparent example comes throughout the realistic sounding claps, airy background vocals, and various hi-hats, bells, and percussive helpings on “My Love”. No surprise, was a track that was made in part of a collaboration with Lamont Dozier who not only worked with The Supremes themselves, but anything you can think of from the “golden age” of Motown.
Depending on the mood, Pennies in a Jar can sometimes become a bit too Motown and start sounding a little too blended together. However, “Mercy of Love”, “Sex, Lies, and Sunshine” and the semi-cinematic sounding “China” provide the more serious counterparts, and while they are some of the album’s more down moments, they do not breakaway from the summery, lighthearted qualities that Nikki Jean’s first solo attempt dignifies.
To close out this review, I wanted to give the title track a proper paragraph as opposed to the ecstatic and speechless post that was created upon it’s initial upload to Nikki Jean’s official Youtube channel. However, it still remains as stunning as it was when I reported on it then. It’s a magical number penned by Nikki herself and co-written with Burt Bacharach that best sums up Jean’s three year jump from working in a coffee shop in Philadelphia, PA to working her way up from collaborations with DJ Deckstream and the previously mentioned Lupe, albums with the amazing, but short lived alternative Hip-Hop style Nouveaue Riche, to where she is now.
Nikki Jean: bottling up the stars, pennies in a jar, and she’s earned every single one.
Album rating: 4/5