Tuesday, July 25, 2017

album review: 'goodnight rhonda lee' by nicole atkins

If you're trying to describe Nicole Atkins in one sentence... look, I'm not even sure it's possible. I tried to put together an easy explanation a number of times for this review, and it just never coalesced beyond, 'Nick Cave, except a woman with more southern gothic country style and sultry grooves'. 

And even then, it feels inadequate. When she broke onto the scene with her debut Neptune City, it sounded like she had grabbed a set of old Roy Orbison sounds and fit it with an indie country sound that wouldn't materialize properly for at least five years! It's no surprise at all her major label had no idea what to do with her, so her second record came on an indie label minus her backing band and her long-time boyfriend. And that makes sense, it was a nastier, scuzzier record... but at the same time, I would say Mondo Amore is a less catchy or solid project compared to her debut, and I couldn't help but feel like her vocals could carry much more pomp and presence that said record allowed to express.

So fast-forward to 2014 and Slow Phaser... and if anything, it was even harder to describe. Part 70s progressive rock tones and unconventional melodies, coupled with more prominent indie country touches and a ragged bland of gothic glam that had more in common with Meat Loaf and Nick Cave than anything in prog rock or country, it was an utterly unique project, even if I could trace the obvious inspiration for the thicker 70s-inspired grooves and tones. Basically, what Slow Phaser represented for Nicole Atkins, Real would represent for Lydia Loveless two years later, because the parallels are stark. And as such, I had no idea what Goodnight Rhonda could represent for her, especially as Slow Phaser didn't really make money and she was nearing her lowest point, partially fueled by alcohol abuse. And yet funded through PledgeMusic and recorded in with contributions from both the Bad Seeds and other Nashville veterans looking to pivot towards soul, this could very well be the sort of record that could pull Atkins out of a nosedive while facing those demons - so what did we hear on Goodnight Rhonda Lee?

Honestly, I wish I liked this a lot more than I do - and again, I think part of this is my own fault for having listened to as much retro-leaning indie country as I have, because while the tones on Goodnight Rhonda Lee are certainly agreeable and potent, if I'm going to compare them to the baroque stylings of Neptune City or the big experimental risks of Slow Phaser, to see her pivot towards a Muscle Shoals-inspired country soul sound... well, again, not bad, but it certainly is familiar, and doesn't quite reflect the experimentation that made those other records so distinctive. 

Now again, this is not saying what Nicole Atkins is doing here is bad - when she's been told she's got a natural voice for this sort of sound, those people weren't lying, as she's got the dramatic range and pipes to go from songs where she's belting to borderline spoken-word whisper, and again, if you're going to ever be seeking out a Nicole Atkins' record, her voice and emotive presence would be at the top of your list. The problem is that she's moving into an increasingly crowded space when it comes to indie country singers with huge voices and production that opts to blend country with soulful tones and a more rollicking Muscle Shoals sound, and it's hard for me to not immediately sketch out parallels to artists with a similar sound - hell, if you give Angel Olsen a horns section and slightly tighter song structures with more groove, the reverb-heavy liquid production on this album is not far removed. Now again, I like these tones, particularly the distant pedal steel echoes that add some phenomenal atmosphere - it's definitely Atkins' most country record to date, and I can see it winning over some of the indie set - but at the same time if I'm looking for the production and compositional innovation that made Slow Phaser such a diverse, potent, and underappreciated record, it's not always as apparent. I definitely like the minor piano chords, sharper groove, and organ behind 'Listen Up', or how the piano and violin play counterpoint to each other on 'Colors', or the shattered horn layers behind 'I Love Living Here (Even When I Don't), or the slightly sharper live feel of 'A Dream Without Pain' that brings a rawness i wish I heard more on this record, but then you have the melody pulling from Amy Winehouse's 'Valerie' on 'Sleepwalking' where the horn production feels clumsily blended, or the oddly clipped electric melody on 'If I Could', even if I did like the more spacious guitar tones on the outro. And yeah, I do appreciate the jazzier elements that play into 'Darkness Falls So Quiet' and 'Brokedown Luck' with the pianos and broader horns working well opposite the strings, but I'm left feeling like a certain element of greater bombast and grandeur that just isn't coming through.

Granted, that might be the point, which takes us to the lyrics and themes, and as I said earlier, this record is Nicole Atkins diving headfirst into facing her demons and the lingering numb haze that has come in their weight. And while the opening tracks set up heartbreak and loneliness and finding solace in music, to say nothing of the mixed, painful blessing of having to learn from one's mistakes, the more personal alter ego comes in alcohol abuse, which manifests itself as the titular character that Atkins knows she should have outgrown but has to constantly rope back in line. But it's this character which gives this record its dramatic weight, from the glittery, faded melancholy of 'Colors' in every reflected bottle to the shattered dignity she tries to hold together in a city of neon lights on 'I Love Living Here (Even When I Don't)', where everyone plays a character and that veneer is constantly on the verge of cracking. It's no surprise that 'Sleepwalking' plays out the way it does - going through the motions in a world 'she used to dream in', reflecting the lingering pain of rejection and a life of facing failure. It's what gives the final two songs of the record such punch, with 'A Night Of Serious Drinking' confronting the failed relationship that never could have worked at the root of some of it, followed by a moment where she just wishes that she could trace and find a 'dream without pain' without being crushed back, mirroring much of the lessons she had to face stridently on 'Listen Up' that still weigh heavily on her. So yeah, solid thematic grounding, and while there are some moments that can feel a tad listless or underwritten, I think my larger issue comes in some of the details. Yes, I understand that this is intended as a more raw, personal project where directness is a strength, and soul can work by going a little broader, but if I go back to some of the more layered metaphors on previous projects, I feel like a slightly better balance could have been struck or the stories pick up a little more detail to really stand out from the crowd beyond motifs that really don't evolve much beyond their first mention.
But look, at the end of the day I feel a little like I'm nitpicking here. I could comment on how I think the cymbals are a little loud on a few tracks, and overall I wish the record had a bit more diversity and swell, but again, that's me nitpicking a project that clearly has some strong personal ties to Nicole Atkins as a musician and songwriter, and while it is a more conventional arc for indie country artists right now, there's enough unique personality, especially in the writing, to make it feel like more than jumping on a bandwagon. As such, for me this is a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation, but also with the acknowledgement that if you're less familiar with this brand of Muscle Shoals-inspired indie country/soul crossover, you might find this a more unique experience. I still think overall I might like Neptune City and Holy Phaser more, but regardless of that, this is definitely worth a listen, so check it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment