It inhabits a world entirely of its own.
Chris Jones 2008-06-06
OK, we're being a little disingenuous here in describing Ms Atkins as either folk or country. Yes, she's a singer songwriter who plied her trade sans band before recruiting her outfit, The Sea, back in 2005. But it's also true that a fair amount of her debut album propels her into a world of 60s grandiosity and vaguely disturbing torch ballads. It borrows from Nashville, just as Roy Orbison (who she's been compared to as a writer) did, but it inhabits a world entirely of its own.
The opening single Maybe Tonight is a huge, Brill Building burst of 60s pop that sends out warning signals of the 'overproduced' and 'bombastic' nature. 'Where's the dark, David Lynchian undertow?' you ponder. Surely this is yet another stab at the retro pop market, already swamped with Winehouses and her ilk? But persevere and surprises lie in wait. For, sure enough, the unbelievable production by Tore Johansson (of Cardigans and even A-Ha fame) coaxes something remarkable from this 29-year-old. Like the anti-Springsteen, she delivers glorious, over-the-top twang-drenched ballads that both romanticise her native New Jersey and yet still throw in a tough, dark heart of country noir. Not unlike Neko Case she delivers something akin to country, but also something weirdly post-modern.
But again and again what really lifts this album out of the ordinary is the Swede's production. His innate grasp of retro dynamics is equally matched by his ability to mix it with spooky atmospherics that could have come from the soundtrack of Twin Peaks. And if you want more, there's the massed choruses of Brooklyn's On Fire, or perhaps the outrageous guitar murdering that stabs through the heart of Cool Enough.
This isn't to detract from Atkins' own ability. Her voice is that of a tremolo-fuelled siren, at once adult and nakedly emotional and every track, save for the opener, is a masterful exercise in songcraft. The only fear is that her audience may only hear the single and mistake her for some pop trivia thrown up by the industry to make a quick buck. Make no mistake, Nicole Atkins is far, far more important than that.