Like every other new millennium nu-soul diva, Nikka Costa wound up being overshadowed by Amy Winehouse, the neo-soul singer who catapulted over all her rivals with Back to Black, an impeccable updating of classic soul whose modern updates were flair, not foundation. It was the inverse of the formula Costa and her producer/husband Justin Stanley pursued beginning with her 2001 debut Everybody Got Their Something, which not so coincidentally was co-produced by Mark Ronson, Winehouse's producer; a bit of history that had to sting for Nikka. Ronson's influence can be heard on Costa's third album, 2008's Pebble to a Pearl, but not to the extent it was on Everybody Got Their Something, when his DJ roots shone through. Here, it's his adoption of the Daptones as house band and subsequent revival of '60s soul that provide Costa and Stanley with their template, but the duo take it far further than Ronson did with Winehouse, who retained a bit of modernity in his tight, sequenced rhythms, in favor of an old-school vibe built upon live instruments. Costa's freedom to move is as much as a reaction to Winehouse as it is to her clean break from Virgin records (who by definition needed her to compete with Christina Aguilera), and her move to Stax records, the storied Southern soul label whose legacy looms large on Pebble to a Pearl. This is grounded in the earthy, down-home funk of Stax/Volt, a vibe that's retained even when Costa dips into a bouncier beat or girly harmonies straight out of Motown. That's because Pebble to a Pearl is at its heart a groove album, one that's all about feel, how the rhythm runs, and how the band plays. That includes Nikka Costa, too, as she is freed by this live, loose atmosphere to really belt the hell out of the songs and she does, unleashing a fire she always hinted at beneath the gloss of her other records. It makes for a record that feels so right that it seems a bit churlish to say that it could use a bit more song sense to go with its sound, just a track or two that grabs instead of grows -- not so much a "Rehab" but a "(Doin' The) Boom Boom," a cut that helps pull in listeners to Eli "Paperboy" Reed's Roll with You, an album that's a kissing cousin to Pebble to a Pearl in its faithful yet fiery devotion. It could have used a song like that, but even without it, Pebble to a Pearl is a bit of a gem, a true blast of retro-soul that helps push Costa out of the nu-diva pack and into her own distinct groove.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine