Modern soul and R&B doesn’t get any better than this. Nick Black isn’t content, however, to just regurgitate genre clichés on his second album Deep Blue. This ten song release goes far beyond giving an approving nod to the past and, instead, uses the genre as a vehicle for musical exploration without ever lapsing into imitation. Many of the album’s songs stretch the audience’s expectations of typical sonic textures in this type of music and plays with dynamics, tempo, and rhythm in surprising ways. The surprise, however, will leave few listeners squirming or uncomfortable. Instead, older fans of the genre will come away from this release deeply impressed by Black and his band’s seemingly endless ingenuity. There’s no doubt that Black and his cohorts slaved mightily to make this come out so good, but there’s equally little doubt that they make it sound effortless, as if there’s songs were written minutes before they committed them to recording.
“Ocean” takes some potentially stilted sentiments and makes them all its own. The brass section is prominent on this track and it’s striking and unusual how well the guitar work complements their boisterous color. This is, of course, due to the restraint shown from both instruments. There’s some piano interspersed with the arrangement adding another strain of color. Black’s vocal, utterly lacking self-consciousness and technically beautiful, never overshadows the music and, instead, weaves itself fully into the fabric of the song. There’s an unusual child-like beauty in the second track’s deceptive simplicity. “Grownups” is one of the most endearing recent songs in a classic tradition – sexually wooing rarely comes off so sly, yet never lasciviously. This kind of likability and upswing is hard to pull off without lapsing into cliché, but Black makes it all impressively snap. He fully gives himself over to the lyrics in such a way that there’s nothing unduly coy and the musicians wrap it up with confident, freewheeling spirit. The effect isn’t as prominent on the song “Falling in Life”, but the lyric turns on a neat enough little inversion for its chorus and the concept driving the song’s subject matter may be familiar, but Black definitely brings the same distinctive touch he has a musician to bear often on the lyrics.
A twinkling piano flourish opens “D.I.Y.” before the ballad begins in full. Keyboards and well placed, stripped down drumming primarily carry the song, but warm dollops of guitar splash across its surface. The vocal shows the same patience the band exhibits and an immense willingness to caress the potentially formulaic lyrics with enough emotive fire to make them greater. “Let’s Be Glad”, naturally, diminishes the soul and R&B flavors dominating the album in favor of a much stronger gospel feel than heard on the earlier tracks. The song’s second half picks up the tempo and Black takes over with a much higher gear, great backing vocals, and powerful lyrics he conveys without a hint of irony or over-emphasis. Acoustic guitars come in for the opening of “The Worst You Can Do” and Black attunes his voice to its needs with impressive results. The personal aspect suggested by the second to last track “Don’t Leave Louise” raises its stakes higher than more generalized lyrics might have and Black takes advantage of that with a vocal that grabs the heart. Grabbing your attention is the order of the day for Nick Black’s Deep Blue, but prodding your emotions is something more. Deep Blue covers all of the bases.