- Courtesy Of Eric Antoniou
- Nicole Nelson and Dwight Ritcher
Certain records in a band's career feel transformational. Think Remain in Light by the Talking Heads or The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. Those records were paradigm shifts, sonic and thematic departures that began new phases in those artists' careers and helped establish them as visionaries.
When I started listening to the new record by Burlington-based soul and blues act Dwight + Nicole, I quickly realized that The Jaguar, the Raven & the Snake is just such an album for the duo. Its first full-length record — which follows two excellent EPs, also produced by the Grammy Award-nominated Joel Hamilton — has yielded impressive results. From the first track, "Next Go-Round," to the closer, "Lift," Dwight + Nicole have never sounded so vibrant. A record that is equal parts summer jams and a deep, moving treatise on how to process loss, The Jaguar, the Raven & the Snake is the band at its absolute best.
But why take my word for it? Instead of writing a review myself, I persuaded Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson to review their record for me. The couple, who share a lovely home in South Burlington, invited me over for tea, and we listened to the music together. The following is a heavily abridged version of our chat — which, sadly, doesn't include the half hour we spent talking about Wu-Tang Clan and why there's no good pizza in Burlington.
SEVEN DAYS: OK, let's get right into the first track, "Next Go-Round." There's so many things I want to talk about with this one, but for me, it's the bass line that just jumps out.
NICOLE NELSON: Thank you! That's really great to hear. I've evolved a lot as a bass player, and I feel like I can be more intentional now. Like, if I want a bass part to sound like something from a Mary J. Blige song, I can do that now. And I love this bass line; it sounds like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters, just lumbering around the city.
SD: The vocals are nothing to sneeze at, either. Both of your vocals sound just incredible on this record. Was that a point of intention on this one?
DWIGHT RITCHER: Honestly, no. We've kind of got that part down; we hardly ever do more than three takes on vocals. And Joel wants it that way, too; he wants us to be emotionally involved with the take instead of overthinking the performance.
NN: It's a team thing. When I finished tracking my vocal on "Next Go-Round," Dwight asked me if I wanted another take. And our drummer, Ezra [Oklan], goes, "Are you fucking kidding me? Did you hear what that girl just did?" [laughing]
DR: Man, Ezra was huge on this record for a number of reasons. When we tracked "All for You," he said it was one of the hardest things he's ever had to drum on. We wanted the drums to be moving with the vocal melody, which is a super hard thing to construct a beat to, you know? But he crushed it.
SD: That's a beautiful song, too. What's it like writing love songs in a duo where your partner is your romantic partner?
NN: Ha! Well, I play "All for You" whenever I'm mad at Dwight, and by the end, I always get over it.
DR: There is definitely a lot of love in these songs. It's been a crazy couple years for everybody, and we survived them. These are songs about survivors, as well, and that's a beautiful thing, not so much a sad thing.
SD: I'm glad you said that, because underneath all the R&B feel-good grooves, this is actually a very emotionally heavy album. You both lost loved ones in recent years. "Angel," "On Your Way to Go" and "Do It All Again" come right to mind. These are songs calling out to the dead in a lot of ways, sometimes literally.
NN: Absolutely. "Do It All Again" is about my mom and knowing she would be gone soon. She died of early-onset Alzheimer's. And "Angel," while initially about her and my brother, whom I lost as well, ended up being about my whole family, generations of connection. We recorded some of the tracks in Norway, which is where my great-grandparents were from before they came to America. Coming back, over a hundred years later, it felt like they called me there, that their spirit moved me.
SD: Yes! I can hear the geographical connections in there as well, the tying of memory and place. It's the whole "we use music to decorate time" theory.
DR: I like that. Yeah, totally. "On Your Way to Go" — to me, that's me and my dad driving along the Jersey shore on our way to get sandwiches from Richard's — which is long gone now, I think — just eating sandwiches and watching the oil barges on the water.
NN: True story: I didn't want to sing on "On Your Way to Go" at first. It's such a good song, but I've just never thought of myself as an R&B singer — that's not what I grew up singing. But [singer-songwriter] Ali [McGuirk] was there that day and got me into it; she saved me.
SD: Now that it's done and ready to go into the world, how are you feeling about the record?
NN: It's our most intentional record in so many ways, and our most complete. That's the whole thing with The Jaguar, the Raven & the Snake. We're all three. Sometimes you're down in the shit, just trying to molt a new skin; sometimes you're running with the pack; and sometimes you're soaring above it all. That's life, that's the totality, and this record isn't about just one aspect of life.
DR: More so than anything we've ever done, this record is a snapshot of us right now. It's like you said: This is the music we're decorating our time with right now, and I really couldn't be happier to present that.