It’s a crate diggers dream. After ten, twenty, even thirty years of searching, you finally find it. Still sealed in mint condition – that record by that female country singer who manages to combine Roy Orbison, Bobbie Gentry and Dusty Springfield. There she is on the cover with her big ol’ headphones on, looking meaningfully into the middle distance, probably wondering what she’s going to wear to the box social. Then you turn the record over to read the credits and see “recorded in 2017” at the bottom. Holy smokes, where has this girl been since 1968?
“Goodnight Rhonda Lee” takes its cues from a fascinating period in American musical history, where artists from all genres gravitated towards a “hip”, middle of the road sound. In 2017, middle of the road is not a place to be and the term puts us in mind Pat Boone, Bert Kaempfert and elevator muzak, but in the late sixties, you could find Dusty Springfield, Evie Sands, Jackie DeShannon and a whole host of others making records that were both easy on the ear and 100% credible – whatever that means.
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Nicole Atkins has played the hell out of “Dusty in Memphis”. This is not a bad thing. “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” is based on the same, funky Memphis sound that made Dusty’s album a benchmark of pop-soul music. But there’s a bit of country in there, too – “A Night of Serious Drinking” combines swooning strings, Herb Alpert brass and a pedal steel guitar. That’s quite a cocktail. That’s going to get you really drunk, really quickly.
No-one should be making records that sound like this in 2017 – well, no-one under the age of 60 anyway. So, that makes Nicole Atkins outstanding in a field of maybe a dozen artists – artists like Rumer, who raided the forbidden parts of mom and dad’s record collection, bypassing all the “cool” stuff and soaking up the sounds, textures and arrangements of “grown up” music. Today, it sounds strangely contemporary. These are challenging times we live in, so forty minutes of beautifully sung, written and played music is a blessing.
You could imagine Atkins on “The Grand Ole Opry”, with her hair piled up high like Dolly Parton, belting out the title track of “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” while Loretta Lynn nods approvingly in the wings, but “Sleepwalking” is pure “Dusty in Memphis” with a tip of the hat to Amy Winehouse’s version of “Valerie”. Whatever she turns to, Atkins does well – you want a Roy Orbison torch ballad? Try “A Little Crazy”. Swampy funk? Well, here’s “Listen Up”. There’s even some Carole King-style, piano based introspection in “Colors”. This is a very accomplished piece of work.
Atkins specialises in the kind of music that punk rock was supposed to roll over like a tank. She was born in the late 70’s, so shouldn’t she be listening to Radiohead and trying her best to subvert western pop music or such sundry shenanigans? Well, fortunately for us, she isn’t. She’s made a blue-eyed pop-country-soul album that flies in the face of what music in 2017 should sound like. A wise man once said “it’s better to be ten years out of date than ten minutes out of date”. Well, something like that, anyway.
Nicole Atkins might be out of date, but she’s bang on time.
“Goodnight Rhonda Lee” is out now via Single Lock Records
The Track listing is as follows:
01 A Little Crazy
02 Darkness Falls So Quiet
03 Listen Up
04 Goodnight Rhonda Lee
05 If I Could
07 Brokedown Luck
08 I love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)
10 A Night of Serious Drinking
11 A Dream Without Pain