Nicole Atkins Ramps Up the Pop-Noir Heat on ‘Italian Ice’

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Nicole Atkins | Italian Ice | (Single Lock)
4.5 out of 5 stars

She might be diminutive in stature but Nicole Atkins makes expansive music. She calls it “pop-noir” which is close but doesn’t quite encompass the widescreen qualities that made her previous work, in particular 2017’s striking Goodnight Rhonda Lee, so successful. 

Take Dusty Springfield’s production, add Chris Isaak’s songs (he helped pen material on that album) infuse some of Roy Orbison’s soaring magic dust and you have a sense of what Atkins aims for. Inject some 70s “AM Gold” (the new disc’s irresistible soulful opener) circa ELO and you’re closer to finding that sweet spot she often nails on album number five.

The project lists six recording locations, notably including the iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Both bassist David Hood and keyboard legend Spooner Oldham from the famed Muscle Shoals Alabama crew contribute. If they were brought in, along with Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite to impart greasy funk to these sessions, they have done their jobs well. Ben Tanner, who mixed the last release, returns to co-produce with Atkins. The result is an album that’s at least the equal of 2017’s impressive release and at times bests it.

The singer/songwriter returns to her 60’s roots to compose lovely, sweeping melodies like those that power “St. Dymphna” (the patron saint for suffering from nervous and mental afflictions), the frothy “Forever,” and the sweet ballad “Captain,” the latter an early single that wraps in a twinge of country with crying pedal steel. She employs the greasy Muscle Shoals groove for the hip-swaying disco/funk of “Domino.” Lyrics of “I’m not gonna play/Safe and sound/When the world comes tumblin’, tumbling down/Ooooh, Take me in your arms!/They’re sounding the alarm” seem to forecast the coronavirus situation many months before it existed. 

Atkins also swings into a funky rhythm section led tune with “Mind Eraser.” The tune seems to be describing a sleep affliction with “These dreams I know too well/Am I sleeping? It’s hard to tell/There is nothing like it!” There are nods to Harry Nilsson in the “Coconut” styled acoustic guitar figure that kicks off the poppy “Never Going Home” and the saloon piano that punctuates the bold closing “In the Splinters.” She digs deep to unearth “A Road to Nowhere”; the disc’s lone cover is an obscure 1966 Carole King composition about her crumbling marriage to Gerry Goffin (“I guess we’re two people that can’t help but fight”) that resonates with the spiraling melodrama Atkins thrives in. 

The singer modulates her powerful voice, moving from a hushed whisper to an authoritative wail and a powerful croon depending on each song’s vibe. Italian Ice clocks in at a conservative 45 minutes, but each of the eleven tunes is packed with such meticulously layered production that it seems longer. You’ll want to experience it with headphones and turn up the volume on larger speakers to enhance the sonic intricacies. As with all discs this densely produced, it beckons you to return and hear what you might have missed before. Why Atkins didn’t achieve star status with Goodbye Rhonda Lee isn’t clear. This flawlessly conceived follow-up draws from many of the same influences yet broadens her boundaries. It’s every bit as potent and expertly arranged, putting it in play as an early contender for one of 2020’s finest albums.

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