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Sheila Nicholls: All of Nature
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/22/2018)
I often remark on how diverse the singer-songwriter scene can be, from dyed-in-the-wool folkies, to angst-ridden alternative rockers, to artists working in a near-classical setting, to others engaging in some musical experimentation. Basically, almost any style in contemporary music has its singer-songwriters. This week, we have a reminder of that eclecticism, a new release by British-born Los-Angeles-based artist named Sheila Nicholls, an album called All of Nature.
Sheila Nicholls is from the county of Essex in England and from and early age she was a bit of a rabblerouser. She attracted a lot of attention when at age 19, she ran out and did cartwheels naked at a major cricket game in 1989 between England and Australia, in a feminist protest. Not long after that, she took a trip to Los Angeles to visit a friend and decided not to return home. She worked on her music while holding various conventional jobs, including as a live-in nanny in New York, and released her first album Brief Strop in 1999, which was picked up for distribution by the then-major label Hollywood Records. She followed that with Wake in 2002, and Songs from the Bardo seven years later in 2009, during which time Ms. Nicholls was raising a daughter. Now, after another extended hiatus of nine years, she is out with All of Nature, which like her previous recordings takes a kind of feminist approach in some of the lyrics, though they are hardly heavy handed. The new album has a fair amount of jazz influence, including the kind of complex chord changes that keep jazz musicians happy, along with interesting tempos. She is joined by a number of musicians from various backgrounds, including jazz pianist Mitchell Forman, though Ms. Nicholls is herself the main pianist, but there are also some other jazz-associated players including Andrew Synowiec on Dobro, banjo, mandolin and the like, who had also done a fair amount of soundtrack work, Doug Webb on sax, Gary Novak on drums, and Walt Fowler, who played with Frank Zappa back in the day, on trumpet. Ms. Nicholls’ iconoclastic early musical approach could be reminiscent of Ani DiFranco, and her vocal style has something in common, a combination of musical sophistication and a bit of edginess.
The lengthy 13-track album ranges from folky to ethereal with some Eastern influence, to the aforementioned jazz filigree, to some country influence with the Dobro and banjo, to some rock. Lyrically the songs are thoughtful and often multilayered. There are some ostensible love-songs but they often have some points to be made. In fact the album’s subtitle is “A Collection of Social Commentary to Music.”
Opening is the title piece All of Nature, which sums up the album’s musical approach. There’s an appealing outward sound, but with interesting arrangement twists, while the lyrics are in praise of Mother Nature. <<>>
Also on the subject of preserving nature is Back into the Sky, in a jazzy waltz time, with a Dobro hinting somewhat incongruously at country. But the result is quite memorable. <<>>
Infinite Mind is another absorbing multifaceted track, with a melodic sound on its surface, but with Indian tamboura being a part of the elaborate arrangement. The lyrics, too, can have layers of meaning. Ms. Nicholls writes on her website that the song was inspired by getting into meditation, after being turned off by religion. <<>>
A lyrical followup to that is a track called God (Bill Maher Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater). The reference to Maher is about the TV political comedian’s well-known atheism. As a fan of physics getting into string theory, Ms. Nicholls uses the song to talk about “the journey of deconstructing and reconstructing God for myself.” The atmospheric, jazzy musical setting, and Ms. Nicholl’s especially fine vocal makes this one of the highlights of this album packed with interesting musical moments. <<>>
Ms. Nicholls’ advertised social commentary is more up-front on the track called And It Builds with another interesting, layered arrangement with some added horns. <<>>
Perhaps the most conventional track on the album is Joy in Store, which is basically a rock love song, thought it’s not without its interesting bits. <<>>
That is followed by about the most outwardly distinctive track on the album, Post Revolutionary Victory Song, which combines feminist lyrics with a curiously retro musical setting with a banjo added to a kind of old-time cabaret sound. <<>>
Making a guest vocal appearance on the album is Dave Stringer, whose album featuring Indian influence we featured back in 2002. The track is called Reveal and it’s a kind of consideration of the scope of the universe. <<>>
Sheila Nicholls’ new album All of Nature, subtitled A collection of social commentary to music, the first in nine years from this creative English-born singer-songwriter, is an absorbing and edifying recording that takes the singer-songwriter genre to a high level of creativity and sophistication. Her distinctive and sometimes intricate arrangements along with her articulate lyrics that poetically provide the promised observation on life, the universe, with a little physics and theology, make for great listening that reveals something new each time you year it. The often jazzy arrangements and the first-rate musicianship by the gathered players help to bring this ambitious project together.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an A. The mix is well-handled and the sound is clean, with Ms. Micholls’ vocals captured warmly. I could have my usual quibble about volume compression and dynamic range, but in that respect, the album is somewhat better than the dismal average for most recorded music these days.
A folkie’s album this is not, but Sheila Nicholls’ All of Nature makes for great listening for those who like their singer-songwriters interesting.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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