Local singer-songwriter Niki Becker made her full-length studio debut in 2010 with Good, carefully wedding smart, alluring lyrics with sparse yet lovely folk-rock. Becker’s follow-up, Sea Salt, shares the strengths of her debut yet also shows signs of maturation. Its sonic palette is leaner, more uniform and a shade darker, with slow-burning distorted guitars and steady, martial drumbeats anchoring many of Becker’s bouyant acoustic meanderings. The singer’s lyrics are every ounce as smart and charming as before, but with moments of stark imagery and introspection, leading the album’s emotional textures into murky, monochromatic territory.
Opener “The Woods” is a tale of rock’n’roll initiation rites, self-discovery and redemption. “I learned to smoke a cigarette/ I learned to drink a beer/ I learned to get a reputation/ while still in first gear/ amongst all my peers,” Becker muses, before arriving at the chorus: “I once thought that’s all there is/ I never know when to quit.” Musically, the song puts Becker’s blues and country inflections front and center, with captivating swells of tension and release. “Float” is another album highlight that follows a similar format, with crescendos and climaxes giving way to a simple wish from Becker: “I want to float like a dream.”
“Here,” perhaps Sea Salt‘s finest moment, is couched in a lulling cloud of feedback, with a transfixing, unadorned vocal performance from Becker. “I’ve seen things go terribly wrong before,” she croons, “and I prefer not to see them alone anymore/ so I’ll stay here ‘til they head out the door.” After the lyrics come to an end, the song continues to wander for a gorgeous couple of minutes, ending with Becker’s ethereal, wordless coos fluttering amidst steady guitar riffing. “Easy to Blame” occupies a similar wavelength, albeit with a more propulsive pace, thanks to Becker’s furiously fast-paced acoustic guitar.
While Becker’s longer songs provide her a tableau to explore complex, dynamic ideas both musically and lyrically, she also includes a number of shorter tunes, providing moments of levity and giving the album an elegant sense of pacing. The catchy vignette “The Party” is especially winning. “Ebb,” a brief instrumental sketch featuring dueling electric and acoustic guitars with touches of piano, is a nice breather that comes partway through the album.
In choosing a title like Sea Salt, as well as song titles like “Float,” “Ebb” and “Blue Whale,” Niki Becker seems to be yearning for a distant coast, far removed from Minnesota, and on this beautifully put-together record, her music carefully emulates what makes the ocean — rollicking yet calm, vast yet simple — such a potent symbol.
Niki Becker releases Sea Salt this Saturday, August 4 at Amsterdam Bar and Hall with openers Walker Fields, El le Faunt & His Traveling Circus, and Prairie Fire Lady Choir. More info here.