There's a new voice coming out of the folk cauldron of NYC, a highly literate voice backed by musicianship of strength and complexity. Eric Nicolas' first CD, Amnesty, might have evoked vocal comparisons to early James Taylor (but Eric's voice is a bit higher, clearer and sweeter) due to the ease with which one could categorize it as "folk." But his new release, "The Water Wheel," is not so easily pigeonholed. It is much more complex vocally and instrumentally, and Eric exercises greater confront in the subject matters he addresses.
The themes in The Water Wheel are contemporary, and Eric strikes hard at war and hatred, while also gracefully exploring love from several viewpoints. Blind acceptance of political manipulation, the dearth of options available to a people targeted by war; Eric Nicolas is not shy about speaking out. The Water Wheel is an important work of political activism, as well as a showcase of prodigious musical skill.
I'll not quote a single lyric, because you need to hear what he says and the manner in which he says it for yourself. Instead, I present brief synopses, with asides on the instrumentation upon which the songs rest.
Election Day - syncopated, funky, upbeat stylings satirize the oft-gaudy musak associated with political national conventions. This song delivers a harsh warning to Americans who refuse to confront the depredations of flag-swathed warmongers that cry traitor at anyone who questions their motives or actions. Includes a brief and well-done foray into rap, with biting social criticism intelligently expressed in words longer than rap's usual monosyllables.
The Water Wheel - focuses on how difficult it is to resolve the isolationism experienced in one's present with the allness enveloped by the eons. Individual mistrust of neighbor, national fear of foreign lands and peoples, fierce unquestioning adherence to one's belief system-what matter these temporal whimpers that are but less than a blink of the eye of time? Soft melodic vocals contrast with quick-paced latinesque percussion and keyboard. That's My Bird - slightly Cajun influence, meshed with more straightforward rock riffs and soaring vocals, Eric contemplates the metaphor of flight for escape.
Chamber of My Heart - very well written excursion into love and its subsequent loss: how we hold unto ourselves the little happinesses shared with another, and how they pain us after the relationship dies. Important in this treatment is the lack of blame-just the basic observation that is a truth found in anyone who has loved and lost. It's a rhythmic blend of Afro-Brazilian percussion with folk-rock driven guitar.
Double Life of the Single Man - Given the truth of "Chamber in My Heart," how then does a man handle continued contact with a lost love? Here lies the anguish of being relegated to just friend and confidant, while your heart cries for it to be so much more. So you have to go a bit schizophrenic so as not to lose at least what's offered. Bluesy music styling supports the mental anguish.
She Is History - Now suppose the volume and power of the images and feelings of "Chamber in My Heart" were such that they overwhelmed your own sense of self. This is the rejection of love as a method of self-preservation, appropriately comparing the lover with powerful women in history. Musically straightforward folk sound, with soft forays into rock guitar licks.
Beautiful Children - a twist on Peter Pan, the Pied Piper and other such tales, contrasted with the drug culture and the disconnectedness of our young generation. Begun with driving guitar rendition of "Weigh ho, and Up She Rises," Eric deftly transitions to a dual paced flow, lilting then pounding, alternately.
On Your Way - an intimate and uplifting song of farewell to one's dying father; the last hours and their weight of memories and dreams, tears and smiles, and the need to make the goodbye fare well for both father and son. Pure contemporary folk guitar work with subdued but crisp percussion complement the message well.
Flying Horses - somewhat superficial and incomplete treatment of the "you can never go back home" theme, but perhaps purposely so. The simple lyrics allow Eric to flex his vocal skills, which are quite considerable. The instrumentation could be softer in spots, but works very well on the soaring chorus.
(Let's All) Join the Mujahedin - This song is too important to be saddled with a title that is likely to evoke sneers from non-Arab listeners. It is the story of a male child of Islam and the choice he's given when coming of age: which side of a gun to be on. Eric, with brilliant clarity and laser precision, identifies the great tragedy of life for a boy born in the Middle East region. Subdued hard-rock electric guitar, prominent intermittent bass riffs and tinkling piano trills are actually a bit troublesome in supporting the vocal content at times, but again work well on the chorus.
The key musicians backing Eric's guitar are Billy Ward (drums and percussion), Paul Ossola (electric and acoustic bass), Paul Livant (electric guitar, mandolin, lap steel) and Gary Schreiner (accordion, piano, organ, harmonica). His website is www.ericnicolas.com. He is represented by Kathryn "China" Hayzer (www.kat2.net).
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