Not sure who Niko is? Fair enough. But even if you’ve got a vague interest in the output of Manchester based Grand Central Records, you’ll have heard her voice. Whether it’s through Aim, Mark Rae, Only Child and/or Riton, the chances are that Niko’s been on your CD player at some point in the last few years. She even featured on Mr. Scruff’s last album, Trouser Jazz. Actually hailing from Seattle rather than northern England, and born to Japanese and Spanish parentage, Life on Earth is her debut solo album. And, as the preview singles hinted at, it’s turned out to be a damn fine record. If Kate Rogers is the sultry ballad princess of the label, Niko is their smouldering queen of downright funk.
You’re My Favourite Music was her last single, and it opens the album in a way that few artists could muster up the strength to. This is as close as a bass line has ever got to making your soul wobble. Expertly layered and dazzlingly energetic, it’s a genuinely bold way to kick things off. But you can’t help wondering, is it actually going to be possible to maintain this level of adrenalin throughout?
Cleverly, and although it nearly manages it, Life on Earth doesn’t need to. It’s an impeccably well-judged collection of songs, and even though second track, Shifting, isn’t quite as pumped-up as the opener, with each passing throb of the bass, the listener feels increasingly at home. Apart from anything else, it also features what sounds like white noise being scratched on a turntable, which makes for an innovative solo.
The fact that the peculiar white noise interlude on Shifting fits in perfectly, and sounds so cool, is indicative of the fact that the production on this album is both innovative and excellent from A to G (sharp). Ahem. But that’s because both Mr.Scruff and Mark Rae have worked on the production, and Aim has provided beats for no less than five tracks. Apart from anything else, this shows just how keen Grand Central has been to cultivate Niko’s talent, and who can blame them? She might not be the most ear-blowing female vocalist you’ve ever heard in any particular style, but her range so elastically broad that you’re a fully paid up member before the close of track three.
Trying to think who or what this sounds like isn’t necessarily that helpful, but basically it’s jazz, funk and soulful hip-hop, sprinkled here and there with 80’s electro. Each track has a clearly different emphasis on these different ingredients though, which is what keeps the whole album buoyant throughout. Some of the best moments are where Niko harmonises with herself, the soulful vocal glissandos that make up the chorus of All I Do, the album centrepiece, being a particularly good example.
Now, it’s common practice for albums to feature their best songs near the beginning. Singles will normally be found around track two to three, for example. It makes perfect sense to play your best stuff before people realise the rest of your material is poor of course, but the model can get a little dull. Countless albums tend to fade away long before they’ve actually faded out. But not with Life on Earth. As mentioned earlier, the album opens with an absolute belter, so it runs the risk of slowing to a trickle before the end. But not only does each individual track stand up on confidently on its own two feet, the best track is saved for last. Love You To Pieces might not be fast paced like the opener, but the soulful vocal delivery will have you swaying from side to side, and the stately bassoon solo makes it the perfect bookend to balance this richly stacked musical shelf.
Overall, Life on Earth is a brilliant example of how great song writing can extend into great dance music; that the two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Niko has concocted a brave debut that demands the attention of both your heart and your feet. So go hug the dancefloor and really feel that squelchy bass. Along with some squelchy beer, no doubt.
Life On Earth (2004)
Genre: Hip-Hop, Jazz, Pop, Electro
Record Label: Grand Central