Nicki Bluhm – Avondale Drive
Originally from San Francisco Nicki Bluhm is now a resident of Tennessee. So, it was onto Nashville to reshape her musical creativity & find a more authentic voice. What Ms. Bluhm believes she has found is a “Cali-Memphis” sound to her showcase. She may be right.
Though at times, on songs like “Learn To Love Myself,” there is a definite 60s girl-group mainstream Lesley Gore-Shangri-Las feel it isn’t bad because the way Nicki sounds here it’s well developed, excellently performed & entertaining.
Track 2 “Love To Spare,” (co-wrote & sung with A.J. Croce – electric guitar/bgv) is rooted deep in a soulful arena & done with expertise. Nicki’s voice is Carla Thomas, not Diana Ross, Loretta Holloway not Chaka Kahn, Mary Wells not Dionne Warwick. It’s all there – Motown would’ve loved her in the 60s. She has the inflections, the tone, the stylizations of the best of that era & the hit potential.
Produced by Jesse Noah Wilson (bass/electric guitar/Wurlitzer/bgv/acoustic guitar/keys/organ) the 10-cut LP Avondale Drive (Drops June 3–Compass Records/Littler Knickers) has moments that delve into horn-inflected soulful rockers equally dynamic. “Feel,” is a fiery workout & will probably be a great live song. There are some vocal treatments utilized but they work because they’re applied to a part of the song where she sounds like she’s invoking imagery like serenading in a dark alley alone — among trash bins, cats, brick walls & drain pipes. It’s an infectious dance tune – everything simply works.
Nicki’s vocals are diversified because she goes from a 60s pop singer to easy listening to near-jazz chanteuse on “Sweet Surrender,” then she swings down into a warm near-Noah Jones tone in the poignant ballad “Juniper Woodsmoke.” Many songs explore finding yourself & satisfying yourself, rather than always making meeting other people’s expectations instead of your own. Quite a challenging showcase.
Joining Nicki are Richard Millsap, Jay Bellerose & Earl Slick (drums), Kai Welch (piano/BGV), James Pennebaker (pedal steel/baritone guitar/fiddles/mandolin/viola), The Woods Brothers’ Oliver Wood (guitar/vocals on “Friends”), Jen Condos & Terry Wilson (bass), Al Gamble (Wurlitzer/organ), Lucy Wilson (percussion), Karl Denson (sax), Andrew Gelb (brass), Trevor Nealon (Wurlitzer/organ), Paula Frazer, Erin Rae (bgv), & Cameron Carrus (double bass).
Nicki doesn’t possess a rough-edged voice like Lucinda Williams, or the sweetness of the majority of the commercial country artists. She sees-saws between the necessary tones of ballad singer, blues cruncher & pop singer & she does it deftly with focused lyrics & well-performed music. Even her momentary detour into Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti-western territory on “Fool’s Gold,” could’ve been a misstep. It wasn’t. She never falters into parody.
The final songs shift to more serious country-balladry from a vintage era. Done well with a deep sincere vocal. The late George Jones would’ve duetted with Nicki on “Leaving Me (Is the Loving Thing To Do).”