Today I am going to write about a genuine up and coming artist, one who takes her music seriously, and has been involved in the music industry all her adult life. During her career she has been compared with some of music’s greatest singers including Roy Orbison. Her music sees a combination of orthodox vocal styles and intelligent and meaningful lyrics. So far, this artist has released two solo albums in the last four years, and it is her debut album that I will now review. The artist is Nicole Atkins, and the album is Neptune City, released in October 2007.

Nicole Atkins was born in October 1978, in Neptune, New Jersey. She was born and brought up in a middle class community, near the Shark River. Later in life, she would say the river was one of the inspirations for he music. Atkins began playing piano aged nine, and aged thirteen, she taught herself the guitar. Rather than listen to the music her peers were listening to, she immersed herself in older music, and now, cites Traffic, Johnny Cash and The Ronettes as musical influences. One singer who had a direct influence on Atkins vocal style, was Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays, an English group who recorded three albums, including their wonderful  debut album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Around this time, Atkins started joining local bands, and singing as a solo artist.

After leaving High School, Atkins headed to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she studied illustration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This proved a good move for. The city had a thriving music scene, and quickly, she became immersed in it. At this time Uncle Tupelo were one of the city’s big bands, and they became one of her favorites. It was at this time that Atkins started writing her own material. She also befriended a number of local musicians. This led to her joining a group called Nitehawk. During he junior year, she lived in Australia. On her return, she joined Los Parasols, and released an EP called The Summer of Love In 2002.

Later in 2002, she moved to Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, New York. She was a regular performer at open mic nights in the East Village. Here, she was influenced by a new sound, artists on the Rainbow Quartz label, which featured guitar heavy pop music and orthodox songwriting styles. Later, she would move towards the sound heard on albums by two very different artists, Roy Orbison and Wilco.

For a short time, Atkins returned to Charlotte. Whilst there, she played with several bands. It was whilst she was back in Charlotte, that she started writing and recording her EP entitled Bleeding Diamonds. She described her music at that time as, a mixture of “Americana, 60s and indie Rock.

Having moved home to her parents in New Jersey, she continued traveling to New York to be part of city’s music scene. Then, midway through 2004, she began working on a demo CD The Party’s Over. Atkins was assisted by former Fischerspooner and Fiery Furnaces drummer David Muller. The recording took place in the basement of her parents home. All they used was a Pro Tools rig, a Casio keyboard and mini recorder. Later drums were added by Muller at his apartment, and further songs recorded in Brooklyn.

During the early part of 2005, Atkins was asked by keyboard player Dan Chen about forming a new band. Atkins enlisted drummer Dan Mintzer, and later David Hollinghurst on guitar and David Layes joined on bass. The band were now known as Nicole Atkins and The Sea. Quickly, the secured a residence at small but important venue Piano’s. It was there that Gillian Bar a music industry attorney noticed the group. Shortly afterwards, the Party’s Over demo caused a bidding war between Roadrunner Records and Columbia Records. Columbia Records were the victors, and soon Nicole Atkins and The Sea were heading to Malmo, Sweden to record their debut album Neptune City with producer Tore Johansson. The album was released in October 2007. It was well received and went into the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart at number twenty and reached number six on the Heatseekers Mid Atlantic char. This was a good start to Atkins career.

In 2009, Atkins backing band The Sea split up. This lead to her forming a new band called The Black Sea. Later in 2009 Atkins split with Columbia Records. Undeterred, Atkins started working with producer Phil Palazzolo. Working with other musicians, Atkins recorded material for her second album Mondo Amore. Now that The Black Sea had a settled line up, they toured with Atkins in support of Mondo Amore. In June 2010, Atkins signed to a new label Razor and Tie, and Mondo Amore was released in February 2011. Although a change in musical direction, more influenced by Nick Cave, Scott Walker, psychedelic 60‘s rock and blues music, the album was well received by music critics, who hailed the new sound a success. 

Having told you about Nicole Atkins career so far, I will now tell you what makes her debut album Neptune City such a good album. Neptune City opens with Maybe Tonight. The song opens with a lush sounding introduction, and Atkins voice sounding very much like female vocalists of years gone by, especially Stevie Nicks. Quickly it’s apparent, that you are listening to a talented artist. From the first time she sings, her voice is clear, she has a great vocal range, singing the song beautifully. Her lyrics are thoughtful and intelligent, and The Black Sea back her well. The song benefits from a good arrangement, and Maybe Tonight is a great track to start the album.

Together We’re Alone has a much different start and sound. There is an almost hesitant start to the track. Thankfully, this is momentarily. Quickly, the song open out into a beautiful track. Atkins voice sounds sweet, she articulates the lyrics clearly, with feeling. Behind her vocal, strings play, a piano plays gently and Atkins voice sits at the front of track. Another great track, albeit one with a very different sound from the opening track.

On the next track The Way It Is, the tempo and style drops. The track has a lovely moody, mysterious and atmospheric track. When I hear this track, I am transported back, back to another era. She sounds like a chanteuse from the 1960s, singing a track for a film soundtrack, one steeped in intrigues. This is a dramatic track, one that builds up, and sees Atkins give a masterful vocal performance, one where she is accompanied by some fantastic backing vocalists. This track shows another side to Atkins. After only three tracks, she is proving a very versatile and talented artist. 

The style changed on The Way It Is, and it changes again on Cool Enough. Again, Atkins sounds very much like Stevie Nicks, and in some parts of the track, there is a Fleetwood Mac influence. On this track the tempo really drops. It starts with an organ playing, keyboards and a guitar that sounds like something you would hear on a 1970s or 1980s Fleetwood Mac album. That is not a criticism. As the song progresses, Atkins’ voice gets stronger and louder, as does the sound on the track. This is a great track, one that builds and builds, and benefits from both a fuller sound, and a good arrangement.

The quality keeps on coming with War Torn, an even slower song than the previous one. War Torn is a quality song, one of the albums highlights. It starts slowly, and in the arrangement, which has a real retro sound, plenty space has been left in the arrangement. As on previous tracks, a string section accompanies Atkins, really bringing out the beauty in the track. This track is a tale of heartache, one about a relationship breaking up, and Atkins compares this with a battlefield. She sings about her former lover returning to rescue her from the battlefield that is a broken relationship. A good track, with some interesting and thoughtful lyrics.

There is a brighter faster sound on Love Surreal. It has a new wave sound and feel to it. This is a continuation of the retro sound that is present on this album. There is some use of wordplay within the track. Atkins changes Love Surreal to Love So Real. The sound is faster, louder and lacks the quality of previous tracks. Maybe the problem is Atkins needs to find a style and stick to it. 

The title track Neptune City has a broody and moody feel and sound. There is a darkness within the track. The guitar sounds have a real retro sound, bringing to mind a song from the late 1950s or early 1960s. It’s on tracks like this that you can hear David Lynch’s influence on Atkins music. Atkins’ voice is well suited to tracks like this, and here I can hear Julee Cruise’s influence here as well. Neptune City is a great track, a huge improvement on the distinctly average Love Surreal.

Once again, the style changes on Brooklyn’s On Fire. Again Atkins jumps from style to style. This time, the track has a familiar sound, and sees Atkins produce a track that is an amalgamation of styles. One minute she is feisty, almost angry entering into call and response with her backing singers, the next minute, she drops the tempo and sings smoothly. As the song ends, it trails off, ending with a glorious instrumental section. It is a dichotomy of a song. However, this does not mean it’s a bad song, quite the opposite, it’s one I enjoyed, and is one that shows a totally different side of Nicole Atkins.

Kill the Headlights starts quietly the erupts into a glorious crescendo of an introduction, after which Atkins sings much in the style of Texas vocalist Sharleen Spiteri. Indeed, much of the early part of track, including the introduction sounds not unlike Texas. Maybe it is just the way she sings the vocal, but there is quite a similarity. The track features drums really far forward in the mix, a predominant guitar and an orchestral sounding backing track. It is a good track, much better than Brooklyn’s On Fire.

Neptune City closes with Party’s Over. It begins with drums and guitar, and Atkins singing in front of them. Her vocal is clear, confident and loud. Again, the style changes, it’s bright, breezy sounding song, albeit one with somewhat unhappy sounding lyrics. Like the previous track, I can hear a similarity with Sharleen Spiteri, especially when she sings the chorus. This is a good way to end the album, with a catchy song, laden with hooks, one that I would say is among the best on the album.

Having spent time researching this article, I started to think about up and coming artists, and their attitude to music. In my recent experience, some people with promise would rather talk about their ambition, rather than doing anything about it. Even if you help them get a break, and the open door to opportunity, they can’t bring themselves to walk through the door, because they would rather talk about becoming a star, rather than become a star. This is sad, and in years to come these people will bore people silly about how they could have been a star. Nicole Atkins is the complete opposite from these wanna-bees. She has talent in abundance, and went out and made a career in the music industry for herself. Neptune City was a good debut album, one that shows a lot of promise, and one that she can build on. The album is full of some great tracks, featuring various styles of music. That is my only quibble with this album. Atkins maybe needs to find one style of music that she is comfortable with, and stick to that style. On Neptune City their are many types of music, and it seems each track sees a change of style. Having said that, she sings nearly every song well. The only one I was disappointed with was Love Surreal, although even that track has some merit. If after reading this article, you are interested in buying Neptune City, I would thoroughly recommend that you buy this album. It is a good debut album, from a very talented artist, one who I hope me hear much more about in the future. Standout Tracks: Maybe Tonight, Together We’re Alone, Neptune City and Party’s Over.


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