May 25, 2020 Nicole Atkins – Italian Ice (Album Review)
You cannot think of the sweet, yet bold Singer-Songwriter Nicole Atkins without also mentioning that she is an Italian enchantress, Jersey Girl with an addicting nuance and depth to her voice. Since the beginning of her career, Atkin’s ability to paint the language of love through her vocals has made for a more intimate and vulnerable listen.
Atkins is also no stranger to the industry as she has been stomping these grounds for over a decade now with four critically acclaimed albums under her belt. There was 2007’s Neptune City, 2011’s Mondo Amore, 2014’s Slow Phaser, and who could forget 2017’s Goodnight Rhonda Lee; a release that was easily one of Atkin’s darkest, rawest moments all while being one that illustrated so tenderly her defenselessness with inner demons and unhealthy coping mechanisms with alcohol.
Atkins’ sound is difficult to pin down as she often experiments with different genres of Soft Rock and Pop occasionally laced in with some Blues, Jazz, Funk, Honky-Tonk and Boogie Woogie pianos. Now she brings us Italian Ice on Friday, May 29th via Single Lock Records. Her first album in three years, it welcomes listeners into a more emotionally charged and sometimes dissociative world of the Jersey Shore, but one that promises a playground of chance.
Co-produced by Atkins and Ben Tanner (member of Alabama Shakes) Italian Ice was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. It was built with a team of impressive eccentrics that include Spooner Oldham and David Hood (members of The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), Binky Griptite (member of The Dap Kings), Jim Sclavunos and Dave Sherman (members of the The Bad Seeds), McKenzie Smith (member of Midlake), along with special guest appearances from Britt Daniel (front man of Spoon), Seth Avett (member of The Avett Brothers), Indie Folk Singer-Songwriter Erin Rae, and John Paul White (former member of The Civil Wars).
With that said, Italian Ice kicks it off with the raw, aching “AM Gold.” A song of Gospel energy, gigantic vocals and strong harmony, Atkins sheds light on the dilapidated state of our world with a slight play on words and biblical sense with “We’re stranded in the garbage of Eden. We’re starvin’ what we should’ve been feedin.” Despite what seems like an inescapable reality, “AM Gold” emphasizes that the true savior is music and that is where the people of the world can find freedom, humanity, and unity.
The need to release becomes even more evident in the next couple of tracks. First with “Mind Eraser,” one of the first singles off the album. Knocking everything out with a tubby, playful base soon met with Atkin’s whispery, inviting vocals, this witchy track quickly becomes a magical potion of violins, guitars and pianos that helps you reach the psychedelic finish line. Also rhythmic enough to sway to, adding a nice touch, the Spotify micro-video features Atkin’s dad dancing on a rooftop near the shore.
For more dancing and dreaming, the jazzy and funky “Domino” features a traveling beat accompanied by the somewhat dystopian seaside of New Jersey where the music video takes place. It is an anthem for taking chances and watching the chain reaction make some noise as Atkins sings, “I’m not gonna play, safe and sound when the world comes tumblin’, tumblin’ down.”
Moving forward, there are a couple of romantic songs that dive into a gradual melt which are dedicated to Atkin’s husband. There is the gushy poppy love tune “Forever,” as well as the twangy ballad “Captain” which features vocals from Spoon’s Brit Daniel. Then there is the twangy, tonky honk Rock song “Never Going Home” which shows you a dirty and downright mean side of what it can be like to be out on the road. In humorous candor, the story depicts waking up “half dead in a Hello Kitty bed,” landing “on a blacklist of a couple journalists,” and not being proud of her own indulgence of the scene.
What is most admirable about Atkins is the way she conveys her most hopeless moments through her vocals that forces you to not just hear what she has to say, but to also feel it like an open wound. Which leads us to “St Dymphna,” song that is in a lot of ways one of her most harrowing pieces. Admitting she would rather die than go out of her mind, the song ricochets between what seems like a prayer to a complete meltdown. Narratively, the songs going forward take a more melancholy turn like in “Far from Home” where it appears to be Atkins trying to console her love. Then there is “These Old Roses” where it seems like love has failed.
Throughout the album it becomes evident how influential ’60s and ’70s Pop/Rock/Country female singers are for Atkins as she emulates a similar melodrama and persona. That is why it comes as no surprise that she covers “A Road to Nowhere,” a bleak and honest B-side from none other than Carole King. An obscurity written in 1966 by King, without being overbearing, Atkins pours her heart and soul to recreate the evocative track.
Back to the original material, with “In the Splinters,” Atkins reaches the end and at this point she is about to reveal the wanting, screaming and feeling machine that she truly is. By far her most feverish song, she nails a stirring vocal performance of pain and perseverance all above bluesy pianos. She bounces from blemished singing and at times uses tone and rhythm to speak the lyrics. Although, it is not until the heavenly choir of crooning vocals that you can feel the curse being lifted from her body.
Overall, Atkins is carving a lane that while often compared to the likes of Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee, is uniquely hers. Nonetheless, with Italian Ice she simply cannot go without paying homage to the Jersey Shore, plus the friends she has made along the way who share the same love for music and use it as the iron lung to keep the town alive. Italian Ice is a charming and chaotic album chock-full of personality and passion. For these reasons Cryptic Rock gives it 5 out of 5 stars.