Vents Magazine Review

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.

Razorfish Review

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 

NICK FEATURED IN ELMORE MAGAZINE

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