Nicole C. Mullen was one of those artists who I was determined not to like at first because all the hype surrounding her over a song that I considered mediocre at best. Does that ever happen to you? You hear a certain hit song over and over on the radio or on a music video channel, and to you it doesnt seem to be anything out of the ordinary, and youre left scratching your head trying to figure out what makes it so special to everyone else. Ive ended up eating my words on a few such artists - but usually theyre more rock-oriented acts who achieve notoriety on the basis of a safe, pop-radio-friendly single.
Recommend this product?
Nicole, on the other hand, turned out to be a pleasant surprise when she finally did win me over through the recommendation of a friend. She exploded onto the Christian music scene in mid-2000 with her pop/Gospel hit Redeemer, which gained her a lot of new artist buzz, even though she had been writing and recording her own music (and contributing hit songs to bigger-name artists) for years. Her self-titled comeback album intrigued me with its blend of contemporary urban/Gospel sounds and backwoods acoustic instruments, a brand Nicole fondly refers to as folkabilly. Redeemer really didnt exemplify this style very well for me, but a few of the albums quirkier (and therefore less hit-worthy) tracks caught my ear, especially Black, White, Tan and Grannys Angel. While the album may have been a bit too perky for its own good at times, it contained enough solid songs to keep me listening and most of my friends (who thought this sort of stuff wasnt my style) scratching their heads. It wasnt my style. But it was great music.
I wasnt sure what to think when I found out that Nicole would be releasing her next album, Talk About It, just a little over a year after her last one. I caught a whiff of music industry pressure, and I didnt like it. I was afraid Nicole wouldnt have enough time to put her unique stamp on it, and she would have to settle for a few half-hearted attempts at remaking Redeemer and a few upbeat tunes in between. Getting a sneak peak at her new song Witness a month or so prior to the album release didnt help my opinion - it was all urban pop without a hint of the folksy stuff, and rather cheesy urban pop at that. So when I finally got around to hearing Talk About It in its entirety, I was already a bit jaded. Thankfully, Nicole didnt completely succumb to the pressure to conform. She has managed to stretch herself on this album, even if stretching herself means a few forays into a slicker, less organic sound. Well give her the benefit of the doubt - shes still good at what she does.
The album fades in with some dreamy-sounding instrumental music, before a youth choir takes over with Nicole leading them in an acapella chant complete with stomping and clapping. Its similar to the Ready for This intro on the last CD, though she was smart enough to make it a separate track this time. If one thing annoyed me about her last CD, it was the interludes.
Talk About It (Say So)
A strong dance beat kicks in for the first actual song on the record, and a strong horn section joins in not too long after. Think Freedom from Nicoles last album, except much less ethnic and much more disco. Its a fun dance track based around the simple verse Let the redeemed of the Lord say so. While its not the most exemplary tune as far as Nicoles artistic talents are concerned, she pulls off the dance diva thing well - its a welcome addition to her array of sounds.
From Bangladesh to Bangor, Maine
If youre talkin about His name
Give Him glory unashamed
(His love is so exciting)
The next tune takes on a more relaxed tone, but still maintains Nicoles playful edge. It starts off with a spoken word against a tropical backdrop of nature sounds, and then a slightly funky beat and guitar riff take over, complete with an irresistible vocal vamp from Nicole. The song is dedicated to an intergenerational friendship that Nicole has with a teenage girl, and it really affirms the ability of two Christian sisters to remind each other of their worth in tough times. Nicole has this weird tendency to record herself making remarks about her own lyrics, such as blurting out Thats fourteen right after she signs Her age is four plus ten. While such commentary may come off as inane at times, its kind of cute all the same. Its kind of Nicoles signature on some of her more upbeat songs.
I call my sister friend
Im crying and whining again
She lets me vent my heart
Before the healing starts
Call on Jesus
The albums first monster ballad may seem at first to be a quick and dirty attempt to duplicate Redeemer (complete with its saccharine string into), but something about this one works a little better for me than Redeemer did. I think Nicole does a better job at keeping with the beat when she signs, for one. The songs starts small, which is appropriate for Nicoles lyrics about how small and helpless she sometimes feels, and true to formula, builds into a powerhouse piece of contemporary Gospel (or at least, as Gospel as my music gets - Ill make that disclaimer before tjolims has to come regulate!), key change, big choir, and all that jazz. It may be formulaic, and it may have been too obvious of a choice for the first radio single, but its still my favorite track on the record.
Weary brother, broken daughter
Widowed lover, youre not alone
The strings at the end of Call on Jesus fade into a brief reading of Psalm 27 by Nicole. Nothing terribly special here, though it does provide a nice thematic bridge between tracks 4 and 6.
Let Me Go
Strings start this one off as well, but theyre more dark and angular, which is fitting, given that this song is Nicoles chance to put closure on a relationship with Fear (who is cleverly embodied here as a disgruntled ex-boyfriend). The song has a slow, almost lazy beat to it - the approach is somewhere between jazz and stripped-down R&B, and it actually works quite well even if it took a few listens to really grow on me. The song is a subtle taunt to this former lover of Nicoles, with plenty of Nicoles interjected commentary to help put him in his place. She refers to her current involvement with Mr. Love just to make him jealous. Clever. What really pushes this song beyond the confines of ordinary for me, though, is a very audible upright bass, and a sweet fiddle solo in the middle of the song that isnt too far removed from something I used to hear on a Dave Matthews Band album. Thats what makes the song a keeper despite its repetitive chord structure and chorus and five minute plus length.
Mr. Love now resides here
Hes strong enough to cast out Fear
And since I dont belong to you no more
Take your hand off my shoulder
The aforementioned sneak preview song that Word inexplicably chose to release early (on a few samplers and such) is a rather sanitary and juvenile slice of urban music made all the more annoying by the group of kids that introduce the song, choosing to yell more than they sing. I have found enough to like about it, including a few clever rhymes and a decently cool rap by David Cox midway through the song, but its not exactly a shining example of Nicoles artistic brilliance.
I believe that God is calling you my friend
To shake your world upside down and back again
Might be a hundred, you might just be a little kid
But you can slay giants just the way that David did
Come Unto Me
Pop-Gospel-hybrid ballad #2 is a little more low-key than Call on Jesus, though it too has a similar structure. It starts off with a smoothly seductive beat and gentle guitar playing (I suppose I should mention that Nicole C. Mullen, or NCM as she is referred to in the album credits, is responsible for much of the lead guitar playing on this album), and incorporates another choir later, though it chooses not to hit the audience as hard this time around. The song remains a gentle invitation for weary Christians to come to Jesus and be restored - standard fare for Gospel music even though most Gospel enthusiasts would consider this way too pop. Whatever. Once again, not the most original composition, but it works, and its actually another album highlight.
Would you like to trade your failures in for victories
Like piles of ashes in for piles of gold
Can you fall down like a child who is hopeless
So He can pink you up and make you whole
A lot of the interludes on the last album were little snippets of people from Nicoles everyday life, one of which was a clip of her father singing a hymn. Here, her father makes another appearance singing I Can with Nicole, and Im sorry, but I still dont like his voice, and it doesnt help that the song seems to be the type you might learn in Sunday School. Thankfully, its only a brief intro to Believe (why its all one track is beyond me), another upbeat, horn-laden track, this time trying to incorporate more of a Latin beat. It works
sort of. Nicoles lyrics are a pretty typical depiction of two down-and-out characters who dont have much to get by on other than faith. Somehow, I feel like Nicoles dealt with topic more artfully on some of her other songs. Its only barely worth not skipping the track altogether sometimes, thanks to that intro.
Her babys got a cold
And her daughter needs some brand new shoes
Got a job she cant afford to keep
But cant afford to lose
Okay, now were cookin! I know I complained about the lack of folksy influence on this record as compared to her last one, but I have to say, its nice to hear Nicole crank out a credible straight-up R&B track. This ones got a killer beat, a sassy, catchy chorus, and enough extraneous instruments like harps and strings to keep things interesting. The lyrics are pretty much Nicoles turn at bat to deal with the abstinence before marriage issue, which is a bit of a tired topic in Christian music, but the songs so well done that I cant complain. She tells a more personal story of a friend who has given her innocence away only to find out the guy never really loved her. Hmmm. That one hits a little close to home, which is probably part of why this track appeals to me as much as it does. One complaint - the line If you wanna step to me in the chorus. I gather from tjolims review of this album (go read it) that its outdated slang. This poor white boy never knew it was slang in the first place, though I can figure it out from context.
True love is faithful, like spring in April
It is as dependable as time
And it as able to hold on and survive
When other loves might say goodbye
This song very appropriately takes off running and only stops to catch its breath for a second every now and then, which is very appropriate, since Nicole uses the song to describe her stress and how she sometimes forgets God in all of the confusion. I dont really know how to classify this one - its got solid drums, and Nicoles electric guitar is very prominent, but its a very clean sound, not at all distorted, so Im not comfortable calling it rock, but its not pop, and its certainly not R&B
well, I like that its not easy to classify. Nicole gets bonus points for that. There are a few points where I think the song needs a little work - the verse and chorus kind of run together without much to distinguish between the two, but then, that was probably the intent. Also, during the break when Nicole says, Excuse me while I play for a bit!, I really wish they had turned her guitar up a little more. She just kind of keeps strumming and doesnt really do much of anything cool. (Give her a few more records and shell probably let loose a little more.) I love the false ending of the song, when the drums kick in and are overtaken by more Latin-sounding horns. Very cool.
Sometimes I jump outta the pan, into the fire
Get my foot stuck in the mire
Lord, You must get tired
But Youre the same yesterday
And tomorrow wont change
Your most excellent ways
This track is a brief clip of what I assume is her daughter Jasmine and her classmates reciting a mantra stating that they can do all things through Christ, including being a teacher, preacher, and all sorts of other occupations. Cute, but ultimately skippable.
At last, the folkabilly style is allowed to run free once again! This song pulls the best elements of tracks like Color, Black, White, Tan, and Shooby from her last release, and once again, Nicole reprises the theme that she very nearly wore out on her first album - race relations. Actually, race relations are just a starting point, as Nicole describes a trip down to Birmingham to visit the Museum of Civil Rights. She pays homage to African-American Civil Rights leaders, but goes on from there to say that Gods work is not done and that God wants to use men and women of all colors to end bigotry. I didnt quite understand her black light: analogy at first, but then I thought about it - so often in songwriting and poetry, the dark things are metaphors for evil and the light things are metaphors for good, and Nicole was probably tired of that literary stereotype. If youve ever seen actual black lights, theyre pretty cool, though I cant quite explain how they work. Anyway, the musical accompaniment is an ear-pleasing mix of a finger snapping beat and some acoustic guitars and mandolins and maybe even a banjo or dobro in there somewhere.
It served to remind me of the perseverance of those before me
Cause the darker the night, the brighter the starlights are gonna shine
The last official song on the album is a definite keeper - it starts off as a quiet ballad with just Nicole gently playing her electric guitar in a slightly bluesy fashion. Its a very joyful song, written in anticipation of either death or the rapture (Im not about to get into theological debates about the latter), when Nicole will meet Jesus face to face. Honestly, I feel like this song is the realization of everything Redeemer wanted to be. Its more emotionally evocative, especially when the majestic horns break in during the bridge, and it does a wonderful job of encapsulating Nicoles longing. Once again, Im not sure how to classify it, other than generically referring to it as a ballad. Keep up the good work, Nicole!
For every man, there is a time
To love and to laugh, to live and to die
So Im living for the One who is love
And Im dying to hear Him say Well done
There is an untitled hidden track a few minutes after the end of Heaven that features Nicole singing her two little kids to sleep. While this too can get repetitive after several listens, its a welcome glimpse into Nicoles personal life, and I like that she puts so much of her personality into her records. There are times when I listen to this and think, Awww
I want one! (And you thought only women had biological clocks.)
Thought Nicoles music is definitely geared towards a Christian audience, shes got enough spunk and artistic talent to fit in comfortably with Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, India Arie, and the like, though I cant say Im an expert on the genre of urban/R&B-influenced singer-songwriters. I just know that there arent enough of them, especially in Christian music, and Im thankful that Nicole is continuing to blur the lines and try new things. As a whole, Talk About It is more sonically diverse than Nicoles debut (though that one was by no means homogeneous), and this one scales back the perkiness just a tad, which will probably make Nicoles music more accessible in the long run to people like me who are interested in her genre, but find some of its quirks rather annoying. Time will tell if she remains one of the heavy-hitters of the industry, or whether people will lose interest now that shes made it apparent that she doesnt plan to keep rewriting the same song.
TRACK REVIEW SUMMARY
Excellent: Call on Jesus, The Ring
Good: Talk About It (Say So), Baby Girl, Let Me Go, Come Unto Me, Sometimes, Black Light, Heaven
Decent: All Aboard, Witness, Hidden Track
Weak: I Can/Believe
Skippable: #27, Jas Class
Read all comments (4)