ALBUMS: The Many Flavours of Italian Ice

As usual, Nicole Atkins and crew mix and match styles to spark retro yet fresh magic

Nicole Atkins 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

Artist: Nicole Atkins

Album: Italian Ice

Label: Single Lock Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars)


Inspired by artists such as Roy Orbison, Harriet Wheeler, and a host of 1960s Brill Building icons, New Jersey’s Nicole Atkins has spent the last fifteen years or so as one of the most distinctive singer / songwriters of her generation.

Combining styles like psychedelia, Americana, R&B, soul, and even Catskill crooner pop has always given her work an idiosyncratic charm that feels both vintage and modern. Thankfully, her fifth studio LP, Italian Ice, is no different. A very worthy follow-up to 2018’s Goodnight Rhonda Lee, its consist mash-up of flavors and temperaments makes it one of Atkins’ finest collections.

The title of the record has a more sentimental and meaningful purpose than you might think. Reportedly, it—and the whole sequence—“conjures the romance and danger and wild magic of a place especially close to her heart: The Jersey Shore in all its scrappy beauty.” In the official press release, she adds: “I wanted to give people something they can put on and buy into a fantasy that gets them excited about what might happen in their own lives.” Recorded at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio alongside mighty guests such as pianist Spooner Oldham, bassist David Hood, drummer McKenzie Smith (St. Vincent, Midlake), vocalist Britt Daniel (Spoon), singer/songwriter Erin Rae, and even singer/multiinstrumentalist Seth Avett (of the Avett Brothers), they make Italian Ice delightfully eclectic yet impeccably coherent.

Nicole Atkins Italian Ice, Single Lock Records 2020

Opener “AM Gold”—which tackles “the horrors of global warming and the corrosive effects of social media”—kicks things off wonderfully, as its Todd Rundgren-esque piano ode preface quickly incorporates the urgent harmonies of Motown in conjunction with trippy timbres and reserved orchestral coatings. It’s simultaneously sobering and celebratory, demonstrating how exceptionally Atkins and company juxtapose tones and genres. It’s endearingly fresh and retro at the same time, too, so it truly sees them firing on all cylinders.  

Naturally, the remaining tracks follow suite, with most of them equaling that first gem in their own ways. For instance, “Mind Eraser” places ever-changing instrumentational surges—including funky double-tracked guitar licks—around a soothingly reflective core; in contrast, “Forever” places the production styles of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson over the introspective country romanticism of yesteryear. It also evokes Fleetwood Mac’s superb “Dreams” a bit, just like “Never Going Home Again” is like a mixture of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” and The Mamas & The Papas’ “Creeque Alley” that nonetheless feels at home on Italian Ice. Later, “Far from Home” is a typical but alluring bucolic ballad before “A Road to Nowhere” veers closer to invigorating folk rock tell-off. As for “In the Splinters,” it closes the LP with a lovely slice of gospel lusciousness and autonomous scorn that’s influenced by the chaotic ruin and joint recovery of Hurricane Sandy.  

By and large, Italian Ice is incredibly consistent yet chameleonic, showcasing different shades and trajectories with almost every new selection. Although a few tunes—namely, “Domino,” “St. Dymphna,” and “Captain”—come across as too safe and standard compared to the biggest standouts, they’re certainly still good songs in their own right.

Really, it’s hard to imagine any fan of Atkins’ prior work, let alone a broader audience for robust songwriting and exploratory arrangements in general, feeling anything other than complete satisfaction here. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what she does next.  

 

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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