A Soulful, Jazzy Take on Inner Turmoil
Good, old-fashioned crooning has a modern update in the passionate hands of Nicole Atkins, a bold and brassy vocalist whose fourth album Goodnight Rhonda Lee is a strong collection of bluesy, jazzy missives, the kind that could populate a once-smokey bar or chic candlelit lounge in any era from the ’40s to the present. But don’t let the shiny exterior fool you: what’s going on here is expressive, deep and meaningful, as Atkins has put her heart and soul into songs about feeling lost, alone or trapped by the past with a poetic reveal.
Atkins, who has opened for the likes of Nick Cave and performed at South by Southwest, starts her latest record with a funky, clunky piano solo before “Brokedown Luck” spirals into a horn-fueled, tambourine-tinged affair. It establishes a style that feels steeped in soul, jazz and R&B of days gone by. Despite the good vibes, Atkins makes clear from the get-go that this is a record that gets into the dark places, exploring feelings of hopeless, loneliness and frustration with a velvet-voiced narrator to guide the way.
Atkins owns the vibe. She croons like a torch singer as often as she belts like a rock star, a powerful kind of combination that shows she has real musical chops. Track three “Darkness Falls So Quiet” kicks in as a groovy ode to loneliness replete with ’60s girl-group-style backup vocals. Even when the subject matter of her songs is being downtrodden, Atkins’s songs can carry some oomph, in true blues rock style, and the track’s melody has a silky, syrupy feel and meaty bass line ripe for hip-swiveling.
While her flair for the spotlight can shine through at moments like these — it’s not hard to picture Atkins commanding a crowd with these tunes — she can sink into the sadness, too, like on the following track, “A Dream Without Pain,” which features some of her more revealing songwriting. While the mood pays clear homage to older blues rock styles, her words are purely original with a poetic, diary-esque style. “It’s all been such a blur / and now I’ve found the nerve / may my path be lit up by the bridges that I’ve burned,” she sings in an ode to moving on to hopefully better times beyond the sad ones.
Much of the music here is the kind you (sadly!) don’t hear much of anymore: heavy, prominent bass tones and tambourine aplenty. The live-to-tape recording technique feels warm and familiar, just like the favorite records of one’s youth might. It’s a testament to Atkins’s dedication to use this method, feeling real and raw and powerful. Her energy in fronting a band shines through, a quality that might’ve been lost had they gone track-by-track.
“Listen Up” is a punchy track that brings out the bluesy vocal tone once again. As a song about how to pick oneself up from his/her mistakes and trying to move on past the bad decisions, Atkins nails the older-but-wiser vibe while staying sassy and true to herself. It’s a peppy, catchy track — especially the ad-libbed bridge and backup vocals. It’s a little bit more poppy and hook-oriented than some of the other tracks that lean toward loungey, jazzy territory, making it a prime choice for an early single to push.
“A Little Crazy,” a collaboration with Atkins’s longtime friend Chris Isaak, feels almost ready for a musical theater setting, with a mournful guitar and swelling string section. Album closer “Sleepwalker” sends out the album on the jazzy, lounge-singer note, keeping things upbeat and swinging even as Atkins explores the depths of identity crises. “My past lives got me weary,” she sings, making allusions to being haunted and feeling asleep in a world she once dreamed of.
Like the rest of Goodnight Rhonda Lee, she channels a vintage vibe, a throwback of sorts to when songs were about big, stage-ready sounds, soaring vocals and sultry tones. Atkins is dramatic but self-aware, poetic but not overtly purple. With a gorgeous voice that can belt, shout or whisper, she’s prime for a stage of any size.