Here’s how to survive at the top level of what’s left of the music business. You tour constantly – summer festivals, rock venues, jazz clubs, house concerts, whatever’s available for the cash. You crowdfund your album, then record it live to two-inch analog tape with people who get what you do and can wrap it up in less than a week. Meanwhile, you bombard your fan base with everything from Spotify playlists of your influences to limited-edition concert recordings. And the social media treadmill – one goofy pic after another, oy. That’ll drive you to drinking.
So maybe you quit for a bit. Nicole Atklns did that since booze has been her muse long before she wrote The Worst Hangover in the World. But while her latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee – streaming at Bandcamp – has a requisite boozy song, the central theme is musical rather than lyrical, a spectacularly successful attempt to bring Dusty Springfield-style late 60s Memphis soul into the here and now. Atkins is bringing that to the Mercury on Sept 9 at 8 PM. General admission is $15, and since it’s a small venue for her, it couldn’t hurt to get there early.
The album opens with A Little Crazy, a co-write with Chris Isaak, a female take on classic early 60s Orbison noir. That crowdfunding campaign must have brought in a ton of dough because the production is lush: pedal steel, piano, shivery strings and Chris Vivion’s snappy hollowbody bass behind Atkins’ impassioned, soaring vocals.
Drummer Josh Block’s whipcrack soul/funk drums push Atkins’ Springfield evocation in the Darkness Falls So Quiet – it’s almost cute that the string section is more country than symphonic, maybe because the album was recorded in Austin.
Listen Up, inspired by a near-disastrous fall into a sinkhole after a gig in Knoxville, has a similarly funky snap. The way the organ voices a popular soul-gospel riff is awfully cool, as is how guitarist Austin Jenkins plays the In the Midnight Hour hook on the chorus at halfspeed. Lots of old ideas here, but they’re twisted into all sorts of imaginative new shapes.
The album’s title track opens as a dead ringer for an early Laura Cantrell favorite and then turns into a mashup of Tex-Mex and Everlys, with some neat staccato surf guitar for extra carbonation. Masking a recycled Brill Building riff behind sheets of sustained reverb guitar doesn’t work so well in I Could, but Colors, with its wary, surreal lyric and rich, string-heavy parlor pop ambience, is Atkins at the top of her moody game.
Brokedown Luck slowly coalesces with trippy quasi-barrelhouse piano and then a stark funk groove, peppy horns spicing Atkins’ narrative of frustration in a dead-end scene. The album’s best song is the slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem I Love Living Here: “Nobody knows the real you, just the character you play…burn it to the ground,” she intones
Sleepwalking nicks a famous Marvin Gaye vamp and a slightly less famous new wave hook, but this elegant period-perfect early 70s-style soul anthem is irresistible. With A Night of Serious Drinking, Atkins puts her angst-fueled noir spin on what the Three Degrees would have done as a charmingly twinkling nocturnal vamp, complete with low-key brass and steel guitar lingering in the distance: “You and I are not like that legendary bird that rises from the ash/ We burn and crash.”
The album ends with a slightly more optimistic one of Atkins’ towering, doomed signature anthems, A Dream Without Pain. “May the path be lit up by the bridges that I’ve burned,” she wails: things may be good at the moment, but how long will they last? Good to see Atkins still battling demons and making expertly catchy, smart music out of them.