Nicole Atkins has been one of the most consistent sources of great music over the last ten years. Her debut record, Neptune City, was a noir-pop masterpiece, and it was followed by three more great records. On her last LP, Slow Phaser, Atkins freed herself from big label obligation and did it on her own, with a little help from a crowdfunding campaign. The result was an infectious pop record with some quite danceable and fun tracks. Last month she released her latest record, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, which is as throwback as a record can get, and it’s fantastic.
The first track, “A Little Crazy”, wouldn’t feel out of place alongside “The Way It Is” from her debut. Atkins’ voice is complemented with lush strings and hammering piano in a dreamy chorus sequence. She gets a bit funky with the next two tracks. “Darkness Falls So Quiet” has a killer groove with a wonderful brass section while “Listen Up” has a great bass line. Both songs are reminiscent of the soul revival of acts like Sharon Jones and Lee Fields.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee sounds like it’d be the name to one of the greatest country records of the 1970’s, so it’s no surprise the title track totally nails that vibe. The drums on “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” nail the vibe before the pedal steel kicks in and rips a solo that would make many a country legend jealous. It’s one of the record’s strongest tracks with a chorus that makes the song even more addicting.
The next two tracks are gorgeous. “If I Could” makes a case for those Roy Orbison comparisons Atkins would draw early on in her career. “Colors” is a stunning piano-led ballad, complete with a gorgeous composition of strings and piano backing Atkins’ voice. The pace picks up with “Brokedown Luck”, a rock and roller with infectious horn parts.
“I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)” is a true stunner. It’s Nicole’s love letter to her original hometown on the New Jersey shore. It’s a complex story. On the one hand, she sings proudly of her former town even though she’s living hundreds of miles away in Nashville, Tennessee. On the other hand, there’s remorse and fatigue in her lyrics, as she explains how she felt trapped but she won’t forget the lessons learned and experience gained from growing up in such a place. Moving away hundreds of miles can bring one to this realization.
“It’s a beat up little town.
I could burn it to the ground.
I love living here
Even when I don’t”.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee ends with three great tracks. “Sleepwalking” nails a throwback soul / R&B vibe. “A Serious Night of Drinking” is another flooring slow pop throwback which showcases why Atkins has one of the strongest voices in pop music. The record comes to close with a gorgeous spacey closer, “A Dream Without Pain”. It has this building layer of pedal steel throughout that becomes a huge monster and takes the whole song with it before everything else fades and we’re left with just a little taste of it. It’s a perfect ending to a great record that draws from so many influences and styles.
Goodnight Rhonda Lee is a bit of a love letter to everything that shaped Nicole Atkins. From her hometown, to country, to folk, to soul, pop, and funk. It always feels heartfelt and natural, at no point on the record does anything feel forced nor does Atkins seem to be outside her wheelhouse. She nails everything with meticulous care, and the result is arguably her finest work to date.
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