Nikki Lerner – Longings (2014)

Nikki Lerner’s Longings isn’t the sad embrace its title seems to indicate. Instead, it’s a journey of understanding, an attempt to make sense of this life’s unknowable complexities — with all of the small triumphs, the sudden pitfalls and the ardent moments associated with such things.

She gets there courtesy of a striking way with a lyric, but also an appropriately layered musical palette: The introductory “Life is Good,” for instance, moves from an interwoven vocal intro toward a heart-filling acapella celebration of faith, as Lerner simply opens her heart to a lyric from Josh Davis and David Lerner. As a statement of purpose, it not only points toward an album dotted with uplifting themes, it illustrates — as she multi-tracks her own voice across a broad spectrum — the staggering range of her incredible instrument.

And Lerner, an indie singer-songwriter based in Baltimore, is just getting started.

She returns with a dusky apology on “Plea,” which finds Lerner joined for the first time by a full band, including Ronald Green III on keyboards, David Lerner on drums, Kevin MacIntire on bass and the angular Zach Brock (who has worked with Stanley Clarke) on violin. The sense of fragility is devastating, as quiet and broken sounding as “Life is Good” had been full of joy and passion. “Curious,” another Nikki Lerner original, blends in a more modern feel, as programming courtesy of Kevin 131 and a beat from David Lerner propel a talented amalgam that includes guitarist Matthew D’Accurzio, the dexterous bassist Henry “Pep” Rose and Green. As Nikki Lerner explores the lyric, they create an swirling, atmospheric landscape that perfectly mirrors her painful doubt.

“Seasons” sees the return of Brock, along with guest bassist Michael League (who, like the violinist, has worked with Snarky Puppy), even as Lerner – writing again with Josh Davis – returns to the ageless wisdom of the Psalms in an effort to grasp the patterns and the peace to be found within this world’s cycles. Lerner’s title track then works a yang to that yin, leaving aside these larger ideas about our place in the universe for the trembling emotions associated with a very personal passion. “All of Me,” a Davis original featuring this series of ruminative figures from keyboardist Stephen Waddy, digs deeper into the flip side of that emotion. As portrayed within the twilit melancholy of Lerner’s lowest range, this is love given in full, but not necessarily returned.

The loping groove of “Love Again” arrives next, and just in time. Lerner’s finely tuned sense of proportion and pacing serves her well. After the darker mysteries of this album’s most recent tunes, “Love Again” bursts forward like a sun streak through purpled clouds, even if lingering doubts about handing over a heart remain. “Welcome the New,” co-written by Lerner with Davis and D’Accurzio, makes an initial reference to the unaccompanied chorus of the opening moments of Longings, but Lerner’s multi-tracked vocal brilliance is instead coupled with a boisterous cadence — courtesy of the Lerner and Kevin 131 — that gives the song a sense of martial urgency. At last, she races back toward a lover’s waiting arms for “I Get to Love You,” a song that feels like pulling into the driveway after a long day of dealing with the challenges that “Welcome to the New” just celebrated.

In this way, Lerner’s album offers both understanding, and encouragement, to those who are wearied not just by the search for love, but also by the often far more important search for peace. “I Get to Love You” ends on an anthem’s note, setting the stage for Lerner’s finale — the perfectly attenuated, devastatingly beautiful “Home.” Here again, she lowers her voice to a confidential whisper, before eventually moving into a diaphanous call. You can almost hear the door closing behind Lerner, and the sense of belonging (“where tears will fall no more, where life will be restored again, where voices sing as one”) finally billowing up all around.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.