I’m going to set my stall out now: Close But Not Too Close by NIIKA is a strange and sublime album that is deserving of your time and attention. It is beguiling, intriguing, and has come to be a dear musical companion over the last isolated couple of weeks listening.
Let’s start with the strange: on first listen to this debut release by Chicago based Uzbekistan born musician Nika Nemirovsky I was somewhat bewildered by the unconventional song structures and musical meanderings. I didn’t entirely comprehend what I was listening to but I was hooked by Nika’s gorgeous vocal performance and the tenderness and textural palette of her languorous dreamscape punctuated with syncopated rhythms and twirling and crunching instrumentation.
It is an album that rewards repeated listening. The songs move in unanticipated ways over their average five minutes in length. These are not snappy one note pop songs but mini soul-jazz-rock-folk-pop concertos with melodic shifts which surprise and delight.
Lead single ‘Blue Smoke’ is a love song to an introspective friend with a “smoke and mirrors heart” who “reflects upon herself always”. The song drifts listlessly in a dreamy state until things morph three minutes in as Nika softly sings, in characteristically offbeat melody, “the ground beneath your feet is imagined.” Everything pares back and a funky guitar line pops in. Suddenly a glorious new world opens up with Nika’s swirling vocal soars with “is imagined” sounding a lot like “is it magic?”.
Other single ‘The Cage’ gambols along driven by a gentle rhythmic guitar melody, soft syncopated beats, and Nika’s dancing voice singing lyrics which describe someone’s desire for self-destruction leaving only “your brain shaking in its cage”. It all drops out and Nika and her backing vocalists sing “cage” up and down a scale over seven syllables. Things shift and for the last minute the cage gives way to a mad cacophony. It’s like a release, freedom from the cage, and it feels great.
Lyrically, the album touches on love, friendship, nature, femininity, and heartache with a mystical and sensory quality. ‘Blue Smoke’ evokes “frankincense and cigarettes”. On ‘Girl of an Arc’ we’re invited to “step through coals so you can walk on fire”. ‘Witness’ calls up sweet liquor and honey.
‘Witness’ is a smacking stunner for the current moment. It opens with soft cymbals, simple melody, and the refrain-cum-chant “when you witness someone loving someone it awakens something inside yourself”. And yet like on other tracks the mood switches and we’re held by Nika’s soulful verse reflecting a longing for intimacy which is then unexpectedly interrupted by the refrain wherein the simple statement hits right in the heart.
There are weaker links among the nine songs: two minute anomaly ‘Oh Delila’ doesn’t switch gears from the familiar sweet languor and feels like a filler. Similarly, closing track ‘Dream Song’ is a kind of lullaby centring around the lyric “fall into the cloud”. It does not have the intrigue of other tracks but does have a lovely flute part.
With its eerily prescient title, Close But Not Too Close as an album is honest and intimate. Nika’s voice soothes and soars with an effortlessness and earnestness which is incredibly endearing. Diverse cultural influences, from Russian folklore to Chicago’s bustling art scene, are subtly evident in a personal, sensitive album which radiates warmth in all its dreamy melodies and surprising edges. There’s much to discover within it that will variously comfort, challenge and, ultimately, charm.
Words by Fliss Clarke