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.
Modern soul and R&B doesn’t get any better than this.
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.
by Bradley Johnson
Deep Blue is one of those rare musical rides where listeners will scarcely notice the time it takes for the album to play all the way through. You will want to play this one from start to finish at least a few times just to take it all in. Nick Black’s second full length album careens artfully across the R&B and soul music map and crackles with the willingness to shake up the traditional routes most artists in this area take to reach their desired results. He’s around musicians willing and capable of following him wherever he wants to go. His co-producer on the album, Victor Wainwright, has been working with his band alongside Black in a live setting for some time and their chemistry is certainly one of the driving forces behind the success or failure of Deep Blue. Everything is here however. The songwriting is tightly calibrated and never overreaches its intentions. The individual and collection performances are studies in how to play this sort of music with the tastefulness and attentive approach it demands. Deep Blue succeeds in every way.
You will want to play this one from start to finish at least a few times just to take it all in.
Black, instead of relying on a gritty Delta blues styled sound or heavy guitar theatrics, prefers pursuing a highly stylized form of soul and R&B. It’s apparent from the album’s first track on. “Ocean” definitely has some recognizable and time-tested musical and lyrical themes, but Black’s gift is for mixing up those longtime tempos and sounds in fresh ways. He has fantastic voice with a theatrical tint – every song on Deep Blue finds Black turning in a fantastic performance because, if for no other reason, he’s extraordinarily able to embody the characters and speakers in the album’s songs. The expressive guitar playing never overstates its presence and brass audaciously leads the way. “Growups”, the album’s second song, is an excellent pairing with the opener as they exhibit the same boundless spirit. This song is stepping brightly out of the gate from the first notes on and it’s an inventive rewrite of the standard “wanting to get together with someone romantically/sexually” type of track with a suggestion of something more serious under its smirk. Another of the gems on Deep Blue’s first half is the song “Falling in Life” and it’s a thrill ride of groove-centered soul music with a funky bounce. Black and his band mates are unafraid to roll through a surprising selection of tempo changes and show off a sure hand throughout.
Deep Blue’s second half has some equally impressive moments. “Let’s Be Glad” is a brilliant approximation of American gospel that reaches far past the imitative realm and manages to capture something quite personal rather than biblical. “Reason to Stay” is probably the closest thing to an outright blues on Deep Blue and has echoes of the classic Chicago sound, but Black’s voice doesn’t have quite enough gravel to make that work like he perhaps intends for or hopes. “Don’t Leave Louise” might not suggest it on title alone, but it’s a deeply affecting ballad that depends on nothing but Black’s singing and piano for success. This intimacy is the reason why it works however – as a matter of fact, the song never misses. The album doesn’t either. Deep Blue is as impressive as second albums come and Nick Black’s upcoming 2017 third album promises, based on the quality of Deep Blue alone, to be a doozy.
9 out of 10 stars
You could say Nick Black has the Delta Air Lines pilot shortage to thank for giving his music career a healthy foundation and a jumping off point for his solo career. Or you could dig a little deeper and find that a path was going to open up for this soulful young powerhouse to strike out confidently on his own one way or another. The former Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots guitarist grew up in Memphis, TN and music played a big part in his early upbringing. “Music was always a major influence on the mood in our house growing up. It always seemed like there was something pumping through the stereo,” said Black. He grew up singing in church and at school, started piano at nine and picked up both trumpet and guitar about the same time at age twelve.
Black reminisces about the “hair metal” bands he played in during his teen years. “I think the band went through four or five different names, all of which had more than four syllables, and none of which I actually remember. Parabolia, maybe? Sixteen year olds think a good band name can make or break you, so it’s best to make it as long as possible,” jokes Black. Hair metal segued into neo-soul, hip hop and later into R&B, coming full circle as Black “rediscovered” Memphis music. “I’d grown up hearing it all my life, but something just clicked as I got older and really began to understand it. It was blues, R&B and gospel from then on.”
As a Music Business major at University of Memphis, Black hoped to back up his love of music with some sound business acumen. “I met some lifelong friends in that program and it afforded me the time I needed to figure out how to make my dream of doing music for a living become a reality,” he said. The hand of the musical gods reached down for the first time while Black was a student interning at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Memphis, TN in 2009. Black caught Wainwright’s performance purely by accident and was transfixed. “He somehow got the entire room to be completely silent during one of the songs he did. I knew I wanted to learn how to do that,” recalls Black. The two met, ate barbeque and got along like old friends immediately.
Cue the Delta pilot shortage in the spring of 2011. “A gentleman named Greg Gumpel was Victor’s guitar player before I joined the band. He was asked to come back and fly for Delta because they were short staffed. I was in the right place at the right time, and got asked to come on as their permanent guitar player.” Black explains.
Touring with Victor and the WildRoots was a way for Black to not only prove his chops, but to gain exposure to a whole new world of influences. His early guitar idols included the proverbial Stevie Ray and Jimi. “During my hair metal days I tried to play as many notes as quickly as I could,” jokes Black. Those old faves made way for new ones when he started touring with Victor. “The moment I heard Albert Collins, my heart skipped a beat, and Freddie King knocked my socks off.” But no one made an impression that went as deep as the legendary B.B. King. “He was true simplicity and a downright gentleman on the guitar. He always seemed to surpass what you thought he would, and I think he was actually surprising himself most of the time! Even now that I’m transitioning toward my own music, I still play like B.B. It’s like an old friend you grew up with.”
Black refers to his debut album, “The Soul Diaries”, released in late 2012, as being “very Memphis-influenced”, an homage to Al Green, Otis Redding and B.B. King and the early voices of Stax Records. Early reviewers said the album was “like Frank Sinatra and Al Green had a twenty-five year old.” His second album, “Deep Blue”, circa Fall of 2015, is altogether different as Black leaves his love of guitar behind for piano and keyboards. “Sometimes the songs I write need a different emotion behind them. Guitar doesn’t always convey smoothness easily. That’s why I switch to piano on songs like “Don’t Leave Louise” and let my keyboard players take the lead on songs like “Let’s Be Glad” and “Ocean”. It would be plain old wrong of me not to feature the incredible musicians I work with day after day!”
Those musicians include Chris Styles on bass, a friend from Black’s neo-soul days, Darryl Sanford and Mike Sweep on keyboards, and Marlon Mitchell on drums. “Marlon is an asset for two reasons, his playing and his biceps,” said Black. Black’s horn section is Nathan DuVall on trombone and Randy Ballard on trumpet, both of whom have been with Black since the early years. “They’ve stuck through so much with me, and they’ll both play me under the table on a nightly basis. But they’re gentle about it,” he adds.
In the video for “Ocean”, Black goes on a tongue-in-cheek search for water of the “Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink” kind. He is a fresh-faced kind of handsome, rocks a man-bun, and gets chased hearthrob-style through the streets of Memphis by a hand held camera with surprising results. He is an old soul, an old-school entertainer and, yes, this guy can play guitar. He is at home in front of the camera, creating a semi-weekly video series, “Nick Black Friday, with a theme song reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. His marriage proposal to now-wife Lena Wallace Black was done with the backing of a full orchestra in front of an audience of friends and family members and is now a YouTube video. Nick Black is finding his niche and having fun doing it.
Although he will join Wainwright for occasional gigs down the road, Black explains the timing of his decision to break out on his own and begin his career anew: “We don’t know what drives us to do the things we do,” said Black. “I’m trying to do something big and bring what I’ve learned from being in Victor’s band. I’m putting everything on the table, it’s just something I have to do.”
—Julie Canapa / Photo by Laura Carbone
This year at the 2016 Blues Music Awards, Nick won "Band of the Year" with Victor Wainwright & The WildRoots!!
"Thank you so much to the Blues Foundation and everyone that voted in the awards. Love y'all so much!" - Nick Black
"This album is exactly what makes Memphis proud."
One of Memphis’ busiest musicians is Nick Black. Whether he’s backing up Victor Wainwright on tour, playing guitar at South by Southwest with Eleanor Tallie in Austin, or working on his latest studio album, he hustles.
His latest studio effort is “Deep Blue” and it blends the rhythm and blues feel of Stax with the modern pop arrangements reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience.” This album is exactly what makes Memphis proud. If you haven’t had a chance to see him perform, you need to do so.
The first track on “Deep Blue” is appropriately titled Oceans, a great blend of soulful horns and modern guitar. You need to check out the piano tie-in with Pachelbel’s Canon in D. As a bass player, I love the syncopated bass lines in the chorus; so I’m a little bit partial to this track.
Another favorite on this album is Falling in Life. I especially like the trade off between electric organ and piano in this track. The organ on this track, working with the horns, provide a soulful sound while the piano adds an upbeat feel in the verses. This might not be what he was aiming for, but it reminds me of Steve Winwood or Bruce Hornsby.
This collection of songs is definitely recommended for fans of Memphis soul or modern rhythm and blues. It’s also recommended if you’re cruising down I-240 with the windows rolled down.
- Justin Jaggers www.facebook.com/JJaggersWMC
Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis, TN was completely filled on Sunday May 10th with fans, friends, and family of Nick Black. The band's first set consisted almost entirely of songs from their new album Deep Blue, while the second set was a chance for them to let their hair down and show off their stuff to the packed house. One for the books, folks!
Check out this awesome video of Asher (Jeremy Morton) from fire-troupe Radiant Spirals doing an incredible routine to "Sucker By Nature" off The Soul Diaries! For more info on Radiant Spirals visit www.radiantspirals.com. Such talent and control!
Might have to collaborate with them in the future... :)
The band and I couldn't have been more proud to be Memphians this past Tuesday. Astounded, honored, happy, however you want to say it. It was simply awesome.
At halftime we played a new song called "Ocean" off of my next album. We got so much love on Facebook and Instagram that I feel absolutely compelled (mainly because of the loving, yet quite forceful demands for it) to share the video footage we got!
We love you all so very much! Check out the video below of the band performing "Ocean". We'll see you out there!
And oh yeah...GRIZZNATION!!!!
Click on the article below!
"The Soul Diaries"
Nick Black is thought of by most as one of the rising young stars in the Memphis music scene. Both as the guitarist for bluesman Victor Wainwright's band and as the frontman for his own neo-soul ensemble, Black has been delivering a healthy dose of quality music for some time now. As such, the release of his first solo recording has garnered a lot of attention and anticipation... and now that the album is upon us, it was well worth the wait!
While the album is very cohesive in feel and mood, it is anything but repetitious. The opening track (and also the first focus song of the release) "Confirmation" grabs the listener right away with punchy horns and an uptempo celebration of Black's intense love affair and devotion for music. Lines like "though the road I'm on will take me there/I'm in desperate need of transportation" convey both his commitment to making himself a continually better musician and the joy the search provides him; it's as fine an opening track as you could ask for.
From the punch and drive of the opener, Black segues effortlessly into "You & Your Love," an easy midtempo tune that reeks of summer and Memphis soul. I particularly like the vocal on this track; it showcases Black's tonal and emotional range nicely, and he plays himself perfectly off the production, again utilizing horns and an easy groove. I could easily see this track as a very solid summertime classic. Conversely, "Fairweather Friend" is an absolutely aching ballad. It's rare when a man can command such a broad range of emotion, but again, Nick delivers. The melody and words are a perfect lament wrapped in possibly the showcase production effort on the album.
Later in the album, "Sucker By Nature" reveals yet another side of Black's musical personality, a very slinky, urban-savvy piece of work that incorporates some of his strongest lyrics. The track benefits greatly from a variety of elements; the production again is top notch with a sort of ominous, mysterious edge to it, and the rap and backing vocals from Butta MD are a perfect compliment to the piece. I'd call this one my favorite, but I'm having a small problem... that being I've listened to this release several times now and found a "new favorite" with every listen.
The ebb and flow of feel and emotion continue throughout the rest of the release. Even having seen many of his performances, I'm amazed at the variety of styles Nick handles, and the ease with which he handles them. "Lover For Life" is another medium tempo summery ballad, and again it drips with soul (and some of my favorite guitar work on the album as well). The pendulum swings again with "Take It Back," another showcase for Black's slow ballad wizardry both in composition and performance. "Mockingbird" was almost a trip down memory lane, as it's the first piece I ever heard from Nick, thanks mainly in part to a very fine video that accompanied the song. Hadn't heard this in a while, and it's was nice to be reminded what a fine synthesis of pop, soul and pure raw emotion this is. No doubt on some days this will be the favorite...
Adding to my enjoyment of the record, I had the unique pleasure of witnessing four of the album's tracks created from point zero in the recording studio. My respect for Nick did nothing but grow during the process. His talent, his dedication, and yes, his pure love of music as a craft and as a lifetime companion became more evident with each passing track. Musicians love him, fans love him, friends love him...
...and I feel confident in stating that, given the chance and an honest listen, even total strangers will love this album. I thank you, Nick, for your friendship and all those fine qualities you exhibit; however, on this day, I thank you even more for "The Soul Diaries," as solid and timeless a debut album from an artist that I've had the pure pleasure of hearing in many a day!
- Silver Michaels, Memphis Music & Art Critic