Nikka Costa’s third album delves even deeper into the hardcore R&B, soul and funk influences she’s been indebted to for her entire career, and in the process sacrifices some of the pop appeal of her earlier work. Pebble to a Pearl is a little more laid-back, a little less structured and quite a bit less catchy than Costa’s first two albums, but it also has more musical depth, with a band of studio veterans (mostly from soul and R&B backgrounds) augmenting Costa on organic-sounding songs that eschew drum loops, synthesizers and other pop trappings that the singer’s relied on in the past.
Some of the longer, more slow-burning tunes are a little shapeless, and find Costa’s strong, sassy voice buried amid all the accomplished instrumentalists. But the supremely funky one-two punch of “Keep Wanting More” and “Keep Pushin’” strongly integrates Costa’s modern pop instincts with the throwback sound; she definitely seems more at home on upbeat numbers like that than on sultry ballad “Love to Love You Less” or midtempo jam “Damn I Said It First,” which tend to meander aimlessly.
Pebble could be seen as a retreat for Costa, who wasn’t really ever able to penetrate the pop charts, but the casual feel of the album speaks to a newfound freedom that comes from no longer having to search for a hit single. While it’s great that she’s found a comfortable niche here, that search did yield some impressive—and more memorable—results.