April 24, 2024

NICOLE ATKINS – ‘GOODNIGHT RHONDA LEE’ carries the soulful torch of Amy Winehouse, Peggy Lee and Mary Margaret O’Hara

SINGLE LOCK RECORDS           21st JULY 2017

This is a great voice. A really great voice. Soulful and wide in range and tone, it channels great sounds of the fifties, sixties and seventies without ever becoming a pastiche. There is a timelessness to the collection. It all fits into a mood and could as easily be on a seventies album as one today.

Opener, A Little Crazy, has a spot of the Mary Margaret O’Hara in its swoops up to the higher registers, though its heart is in the lovelorn ballads of Patsy Cline or Roy Orbison. A lap steel weeps sadly but Nicole knows she’s a bit unhinged. It comes through again on songs like I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t), where the voice reaches high for emphasis or A Dream Without Pain, where it she commits her heart by shooting high.

Elsewhere, on Darkness Falls So Quiet, there’s a catch on her voice, an edge of vulnerability and emotion, dug deep in the Blues. That catch makes Listen Up into an upbeat pop song of getting by and winning. Swampy deep and dirty blues on Brokedown Luck are picked up by a horn chorus and made defiant and triumphalist. That fabulous crossover soul-pop Amy Winehouse was making later in her short career, is still alive in moments like Sleepwalking, a lovely soul-strutting hip-swayer.

Recorded in Texas, this would be expected to touch on a few of the great genres of the American legacy. Atkins has the blues and soul nailed down. Songs are universal in spirit, yet draw on a personal journey for Nicole, as she explores the pain in growing up and out of wild times. She sounds like she’s revelling in in these songs and I’m getting a vocal feel of Duffy or Amy Winehouse in the joyful soul-isms and occasional blues snarl. She’s well-practised, with a decade working the music bars of Brooklyn and elsewhere and it shows in the perfect yet heartfelt delivery. Bluesy honky-tonk soul seems to drop easy from Nicole and her band but are undoubtedly the result of a lot of work.

Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the title track and the album theme – giving the kiss-off to her alter-ego, the hard-drinking queen of the bars (an occupational hazard of singing in a band). It stands out as soulful blues. Colors, a song about the bottle killing her, could easily be sung in the same style by Petula Clark or Peggy Lee, both singers who come from the heart and inhabit a song. The plaintive chorus of If I Could might spring from the same stable and will be your earworm for a few days. Ordinarily an album largely about giving up drinking would be about as appealing as Christian Rock but the extraordinary quality of Atkins’ voice makes it something else. That and the way she absolutely does not preach.

I love the way the album ends on a gentle ballad about a stumbling relationship, walking the bass line through a smoky story with a smoky voice. This is an album full of the finest qualities of American songwriting and may just introduce you to a voice you should hear a lot more of.

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