February 12, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Hidden Nikki - Found (2012)

On first few spins, Hidden Nikki’s Found comes across as one of those pop-jazz records that appeal to a more contemporary crowd, a product tidied up on the edges, smoothened and manufactured for a potential crossover slant. But the more I engage myself to it, the more I end up discovering how good it actually is, and how little by little, Found unravels a sophisticated sound grounded in virtuosity and tenderly melodic arrangements.

Found opens with “Umaga Na,” a laidback number that moves in a casual, suave pace. It sets the pleasant tone of the entire record, starting off strongly with a punch that’s relaxed and raw, vibrant and tranquil, and definitely great for early morning jumpstarts. “In a While” follows the similar pattern, sporting a feel-good vibe with the drum beats more upfront, and the keyboard tones mellower, eventually leading toward an improvisational stomp of some sorts. From there, everything takes a familiar approach: Steely Dan-influenced, smooth jazz pieces that showcase the band’s affinity for imaginative keyboard and guitar parts, unusually intricate rhythms that range from swingy to mere slipshod, and a nod to the poppier side of ‘70s Manila Sound, thanks to the appropriation of the Filipino language and the sentimental cheese that’s distinctly Pinoy.

It’s also hard not to take notice of the similarities between Hidden Nikki and the Sach Castillo-fronted band, Sound. It’s true that Hidden Nikki goes for a more accessible, rounder groove, and Sound as we all know, dribbles on a center-of-the-leftfield stance, experimenting with electronic and ambient music while maintaining the high octane mixture of Bossa nova and acid jazz. It’s just that when Aaron Gonzales sings, I couldn’t help but point out of how close it resembles to Sach’s vocals. Both bands also take a dig at immaculately slick production values and pop sensibilities, pogi-jazz you may call it that way.

Despite the comparisons, Hidden Nikki stands out on its own marvel. They may not be as complex or as aggressive as Sound, but the band managed to pull off a solid compositional work that has a modern ring to it. That said, “Alone With My Thoughts” is a testimony of how capable this band is in yielding a remarkable piece of work, without swerving too far from its cached sound. Armi Millare of Up Dharma Down shares songwriting and vocal credits on the aforementioned track, and instead of harnessing soulful, big diva chops, she adds distinct whimsy to the mix, allowing Aaron Gonzales to shine on his own terms. It’s actually one of my favorite tracks in the album, and I love how the harmonized chorus blends well with the sparkly melodies and the light jazz notes tinkering at the backdrop. “Gabi Ng Sayawan” is another flawless gem that isn’t really sonically different from the rest of the songs in Found, but evokes everything that we relish in a pop song: a mesmerizing hook, easily relatable lyrics that sit well with our experiences and a knack for celebratory romance—something that we aspire for even in the middle of our sleep. Maybe just maybe, they happened to be just like us, hopelessly stricken by the four-letter word, immensely driven by what speaks of our emotional limitations and explorations. We’re contented by just the last dance with the ones we loved, and split-a-second, we remember it over and over, and kept it at the deepest of our memories.

Hidden Nikki’s Found doesn’t work all the time though. It sure has lapses, especially with the kind of hackneyed songwriting that still needs a little fine tuning. However, you can’t deny that it’s a solid debut that makes its youthfulness even more wonderful. Nothing in it breaks new grounds or directions. But it is indeed a grower, an album beaming with sophistication and a polished structure that I haven’t heard in a contemporary jazz record for quite a while. With just a few years more, I’m pretty sure that these guys are home-bound to something great and transcendent; ready to surprise us with yet another album. Here’s hoping.  B 

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