That a 17-year-old Oregonian singer/songwriter can be good at jazz-inflected adult contemporary with a soulful groove might come as a surprise to some. But this will only last until they hear Shannen Nicole’s album Captive, which brings to mind Norah Jones and Joss Stone quite a few times throughout.
The shortest track in the set opens the album. “Clueless” is a mid-tempo, piano-driven, and jazz-tinged number, introducing the listener to Nicole’s style and vocals. These, despite a faint hint of smokiness, remain for the most part clear and sweet.
All these elements—except the tempo—are upped a notch in “Damsel”, in which the vocals are delivered with an extra hint of smokiness and the piano leans even more into the track. Jazz takes on a heavier flavour here, making more heavy use of the cello and drums. A new addition is the strings that give the composition a slightly darker feel, almost making up for Nicole’s vocals, which despite it all, remain more sweet than smoky.
“He Told Me” feels like a jazz-flavoured mainstream ballad from the 1940-’50s, encouraging listeners to sway to the rhythm of a melody regularly peppered with a tambourine. The album’s mid-tempo title track opens up as a throbbing heartbeat thanks to some big, deep drums until a piano and strings take over. “Captive” remains light despite the heaviness of its theme, just like the upbeat, almost cheerful folksy “Once Upon a Lie”.
“Sensitive”, built on Nicole’s vocals, an electric guitar, and the hum of backing vocals from the halfway mark onward, makes the singer seem very vulnerable as she admits: “I know I know/That I’m sensitive”. But those who mistake vulnerability with fragility are told, quite firmly: “Don’t try to bring/My light down”, which is a very important lesson for sensitive people to learn.
Lead single “She Knows It” is as dark as it gets on this album, which isn’t too much so. It touches on the pursuit of a love affair doomed from the beginning. The bubbly, funky, and radio-friendly “Wicked Lullaby” comes as an interesting contrast both with regards to lyrics and melody.
The more somber and introspective “Choices” seems to set up a parallel between the build-up of choices that are “haunting” and “guiding” Nicole and the build-up of layers—piano, vocals, electric guitar. The album finishes off with “2 AM”, a more traditional piano and vocals ballad.
Nicole’s music, even at its most serious, is never completely dark. It comes off mostly as smart, retro-tinged pop with jazz and blues elements. She has demonstrated in Captive the ability to pen and deliver authentic, emotional, and raw songs that make great use of her vocals and of the piano. Shannen Nicole is a name to follow; if she continues building on this, she still no doubt become very well known.