The Good: Good vocals, Decent lyrics, Sounds great
The Bad: SHORT!, Overproduced in several places
The Basics: The most consistently wonderful album of 2014, Little Secret is poised to make Nikki Yanofsky a household name in the U.S.
My recent vacation was broken into two legs: a quick trip to New York (which I did solo) and a full vacation with my wife to Minnesota. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the actual travel for the two legs of the trip was the stark contrast in the airplay on the radio in my car as I traveled. For my trip back to New York, I went through Canada and the sheer variety of music on the slew of radio stations I cruised was wonderful. By contrast, the farther I went into the Midwest United States on the second half of my trip, the more the radio stations were dominated by the insipid new single by Taylor Swift, new Country music and an inordinate number of radio evangelicals talking hellfire and brimstone. But what really struck me in Canada was a “new” single that stuck in my head and became the first song in years that I felt compelled to look up the moment I reached my destination. The song was “Necessary Evil,” by Nikki Yanofsky and it is the current single being used to promote Yanofsky’s album Little Secret.
Having now listened to Little Secret - several times! – I am heartened by the idea that pop music might not be dead . . . it just went north to get developed and played for this decade. And it’s pretty much popped-up Jazz. The thing is, the more I listened to “Necessary Evil” and the rest of Little Secret, the more it occurred to me that Adele pretty much has an impossible task with her new album (how did Adele get into this?! Give me a moment . . .). Adele’s 21 (reviewed here!) legitimately took the world by storm with her powerful vocals, memorable lyrics, catchy tunes and a pretty kicking bassline. The success of 21 put Adele in a pretty horrible position creatively; either she tries to recapture the sound and feel of her mega-successful album (in which case critics will bash her for staying in a safe rut) or she branches out creatively, where she risks losing the audience that found her atypical-jazz/pop sound to be a refreshing change of pace. Enter Nikki Yanofsky and Little Secret. Yanofsky has an amazing voice and she is not afraid to use it on Little Secret. Her musical background is strongly jazz, but Little Secret has all the qualities necessary to pull an obscure jazz album into a full-fledged pop music hit. Little Secret has wonderful flow, a generally good variety of songs and some compelling lyrics and themes. For sure, Little Secret works better as an album than it would as a collection of singles (i.e. there won’t be four or five singles played from this album on the radio, like Adele’s 21 had), but it has the right mix of catchy and compelling to be perfectly worth listening to over and over again. In other words, Little Secret might well be the logical album for those who loved 21 to follow up with. Occupying a similar niche and level of talent as Adele, Nikki Yanofsky has created an album that evolves past the sounds Adele put forth on 21 . . . and she is unburdened by the reputation and expectations that are now associated with being Adele!
With twelve tracks, clocking out just under thirty-nine minutes, the biggest strike against Little Secret is that it is short. Most of the songs are barely over three minutes in length and the significance of that cannot be understated. “Necessary Evil” is the second-longest track on Little Secret and part of the beauty of the song is that it is given the time to truly breathe and develop. What made me truly “hear” the song “Necessary Evil” and become intrigued enough to pick up Little Secret was a half-beat pause in the song before Yanofsky sings the word “cuckoo.” Seriously. Most of the songs on Little Secret lack the duration to make intriguing musical moments like that.
That said, what Little Secret has is an impressive collection of songs that illustrate that Nikki Yanofsky is a genuine artist (and not likely to be a one-hit wonder). Yanofsky co-wrote all of the songs on Little Secret, save “Jeepers Creepers 2.0.” Yanofsky provides all of the primary vocals on Little Secret. While Yanofsky is not credited with production credits, she seems to have been intimately involved with the overall sound of Little Secret.
The trust Nikki Yanofsky put in her producers seems justified; Little Secret does not sound like any other albums being released this year. Lights Out is easily-classified as jazz-pop; the title track sounds like Yanofsky and her co-writers started with “Fever” and started a rewrite. “Jeepers Creepers 2.0” takes the old standard and peps it up for a contemporary audience. But those two songs sound nothing like “Necessary Evil,” which is right on the border of r&b or “You Mean The World To Me,” which is a soft, slow pop ballad. The delightful aspect of Little Secret is that it might have a jazz base (recall that all rock and roll did!), but Yanofsky does not stay pigeonholed within that genre. The result is an album that feels musically diverse, while remaining a cohesive thread. While “Necessary Evil” finds the perfect balance of basslines and instrumental accompaniment, several of the songs (most notably “Out Of Nowhere”) are overproduced, adding more elements, samples and volume of instruments to the mix to feel a little more assembled than organic. It leaves one hoping for an acoustic version of Little Secret just to be able to hear every lyric and the vocal power of the primary artist.
And Nikki Yanofsky certainly has vocal power. Her voice is sweet and soulful on “Necessary Evil,” lower and smokier on “Out Of Nowhere” and could be a clone of Ella Fitzgerald on “Waiting On The Sun.” Yanofsky has fairly incredible range, from lower alto for some of her jazz torchsong sounds to an soprano for some of her more intimate vocal moments. I was particularly impressed by how well she articulates while singing some of her faster lines on songs like “Knock Knock.” After Little Secret, it seems like Yanofsky could credibly go in any direction she wants with developing her sound; she has the vocal range for it!
As a writer, Nikki Yanofsky has some serious talent as well. It takes a lot for me to accept (much less champion) a song about infidelity or raw sexuality – I tend to go for classy and evolved; we make choices, not just fall compulsively into acts of love or sex. But Yanofsky sells me with “Necessary Evil” and it’s not simply because the song is well-produced to be a hit. Like all great music, it starts with the lyrics and when Yanofsky croons “Come baby time to play, you know I want it bad, you too / Yeah baby its okay if it drives me mad, cuckoo / Maybe I love it, maybe I need it / Maybe there ain't no other way to try and please me / No matter how it all goes down, I just know I want you now / So don't you, don't you tell me no . . .” (“Necessary Evil”), she is captivating. The song is not vacuous, though, and Yanofsky includes a sense of consequence, which is what makes “Necessary Evil” so wonderful: “I should lose these wicked ways, I know this can't be good for you / So tell me that you love these games, you don't mind being used do you?”
Yanofsky sings most about relationships and Little Secret has a decent emotive range of songs about fulfillment and longing. Not shy about aiming for fun and making pop culture references – which Yanofsky does on “Something New” and “Kaboom Pow” – Yanofsky manages to be smart and substantive for the bulk of Little Secret. Yanofsky and her co-writers have an excellent sense of imagery and tying it to emotions. With delightfully florid lines like “Skies been bluffing me for days / Actin' like it's 'bout to rain / But I've been waiting / And nothing's changed / Of all the shades the sky could take / Why paint it grey” (“Waiting On The Sun”), Yanofsky makes a clear visual and emotional picture with her songs.
Not all of the lyrics are winners, but even the somewhat predictable rhymes work in context. One suspects Yanofsky was secretly trying to position herself as the next singer for a James Bond film with “Bang.” The song works despite somewhat repetitive and predictable rhymes like “Most wild forces can't be tamed tamed tamed / Better duck your head down as he aims aims aims for it / Killin for a livin', such a crying shame / But evil’s such a good dog when it’s chained chained chained” (“Bang”).
Regardless of its short duration, Little Secret does a wonderful job of presenting Nikki Yanofsky as a woman with great range and depth, which might go a long way to preventing Yanofsky from suffering the same problems Norah Jones faced with trying to reinvent herself after Come Away With Me (reviewed here!). Yanofsky continually evolves and experiments on Little Secret, while maintaining a powerful and distinctive voice to make for a cohesive album that is well worth picking up.
For other new music, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Title - Meghan Trainor
Lights Out - Ingrid Michaelson
Shine On - Sarah McLachlan
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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