"Two men enter, one man leaves." Except for the "man" part, all that "two enter, one leaves" stuff, this being a fight to the death, and it having absolutely anything to do with Mel Gibson's Mad Max franchise beyond the obvious Tina Turner hook, that's the premise behind today's historic challenge! Competing for the title "Best Female Pop-R&B Artist Deserving Your Limited CD Dollars" come two fierce competitors, both with new projects worthy of your consideration. In this corner... weighing-in at almost fifty years of rocked-up soulfulness is Anna Mae Bullock, aka Tina Turner, who (insert "arguably" if you must) might have been queen of the genre had Aretha Franklin never been born. She's amassed seventeen solo pop hits, twenty as a duo with her ex-husband, the late Ike Turner, and is an international superstar beyond Thunderdome and compare. And in this corner... with twenty-seven years of funky R&B under her belt is upstart Domenica "Nikka" Costa, funky diva-daughter of the late arranger, Don Costa and goddaughter of Frank Sinatra. Nikka had the huge non-radio hit, "Like A Feather," featured in a Tommy Hilfiger ad campaign, and is also an international star, especially in Australia and her birthplace, Tokyo, Japan.
Alright, let's kick the elephant in the room out right now. Is Tina Turner going to be allowed to record another studio album or are we going to need a court order? It's been almost ten years since Twenty Four Seven, her last assembly of new material, was streeted. After single and double disc versions of both her greatest hits collections--Simply The Best and All The Best--comes the beautifully-packaged Tina!, her fifth and latest Capitol/EMI-oriented anthology that offers the two previously-unreleased bonus tracks, "It Would Be A Crime" and "I'm Ready." It also houses not one, not two, not three, but FOUR live tracks that unfortunately replace her classic studio covers of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand The Rain," as well as her #15 pop hit, "The Best." Also included is her live, low-charting Eurosingle cover of Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love," apparently to... because... I have no idea. Yes, we get it, she's a great live performer with an imminent world tour (what a coincidence!), and her management probably insisted on these four interlopers. But what we have here is a failure to communicate--Tina! is neither fish nor fowl nor can it somehow be spun as "refreshing" for its not being yet another hits collection since these live recordings are unexceptional. And you know what? Not one previous anthology has nailed a Tina Turner Greatest Hits track list to date. So Nikka Costa wins this round since Turner & Co.'s overview seems to be a little punch-drunk.
Since Tina! is probably the last say on Turner's finest recordings before CDs go bye-bye, this is a pretty sad assembly. And given the supergluing of vastly different eras of content together with seemingly no consideration for arrangements or sonics, even the sequence is a mess. Oh well, c'est la vie. But that said, what IS refreshing about this release is the inclusion of "The Acid Queen," her recording from Pete Townsend's Tommy soundtrack, Ken Russell's movie having captured the most stunning visual of Turner that is almost as iconic as any role by Marilyn Monroe. Points also go to Tina! for adding "River Deep -- Mountain High" and "Nutbush City Limits" in their original incarnations. Then again, choosing Turner's re-recorded "Proud Mary" over the Ike & Tina original--especially if you're going to have the three iconic aforementioned recordings--earns demerits. This CD would have been a knockout had that track appeared, as well as Turner's studio version of "Let's Stay Together" (that original recording being her international career reviver), plus the hits "Typical Male" (Pop #2 for three weeks) and "One Of The Living" (Pop #15). Another addition could have been the Ike & Tina Turner r&b smash, "It's Gonna Work Out Fine." Still, this round has to go to Turner, purely from the quality of her remaining era-defining classics.
Nikka, Nikka, Nikka. In the US, she has been treated like Jan Brady, undeservedly overlooked and underappreciated by the masses for much of her later career's adolescence. Most folks know Nikka Costa purely from the Hilfiger commercial's use of "Like A Feather" and her version of Blondie's "Call Me" on the Zoolander soundtrack, then begin a Sarah Palin-esque, deer-in-headlights tap dance when discussing her music any further. Regardless, quite a few kids bought her albums Everybody Got Their Something and Can'tneverdidnothin', and they flock to Costa concerts knowing she's one of the best live performers out there. Nikka's natural choreography and gritty, gospel-meets-R&B dynamics were let loose during her most recent Los Angeles revival held this past Friday at the famed El Rey. Her total control of the room and the joy her audience experienced was a testament to all that was funking well in the world. Especially inspired was the jacked-up, call-and-response of "Cry Baby," Costa's R&B workout that almost tore the roof off the sucka. Her band's arrangements on most of the ten song track list even rivaled classic Sly Stone grooves, making it difficult to describe the scene that "Everybody Got Their Something" turned into. During Elizabeth Lea's free-for-all trombone solo, the band was so soulfully and physically synced to the groove that you might as well have been staring at a strobe light. Even a song like "Push And Pull," through which Costa initially mellowed the room with acoustic guitar, soon simmered into a rhythmic seduction. But no matter how incredible Costa is on stage, Tina Turner taught everyone how to do it since the days of "The Ike And Tina Turner Revue" and wins this round on a technicality (who said the world was fair?).
Now, since it's hard to translate that live je ne sais quoi into contoured studio recordings, her new vintage-sounding album Pebble To A Pearl -- appropriately released on Stax Records -- doesn't even try. Wisely avoiding flavor-of-the-second production, it focuses on positive and deeper themes, whether it be in the title track's celebration of women allowing themselves to enjoy the best in life ("Don't be afraid to live out loud... don'tcha be a pebble, be a pearl") or in "Keep Wanting More"'s questioning of living a possessions-focused life at the expense of personal growth. Costa evokes Nona Hendryx, Joyce Kennedy of Mother's Finest, and even a little Irma Thomas, presenting eleven R&B-drenched originals and a fine cover of Johnny Guitar Watson's "Loving You." The album's first single, "Stuck To You," already sounds classic, mixing some Stax and Motown with a hint of '60s girl groups a la a less wordy Duffy. The smoky, 3/4 beat trance that is "Someone For Everyone" with its simple lyrics says so much more than its obvious message because of Costa's nuanced vocals. And "Without Love" is worthy of a dozen cover versions by artists such as Chaka Khan and...dare I say...Tina Turner, you know, if she's ever allowed to make another original album. The project ends with the poignant "Bullets In The Sky," Costa's beautiful piece on war and a testing of faith. Based on Pebble To A Pearl's being a creative visit to young R&B that also reveres the old school without sounding dated, Costa easily wins the round.
Alright, enough, we're done. Go get Pebble To A Pearl for its pop-soul bliss and get Tina! to feed your iTunes the pre-"What's Love Got Do With It" recordings and bonus track, "It Would Be A Crime"--that it truly would be if Nikka Costa wasn't pronounced the winner in the absurd and unlikely match-up suggested here! We equally should remember that if it weren't for pioneering women such as Tina Turner who spent decades paving the way for all the female R&B artists that followed, no one would be much of a winner in this style of music today.