[We're A Happy Family] Greetings from Ashbury Park from Nicole Atkins11-06-2020
[We're A Happy Family] This Ramones song title fits perfectly with this new series by Sedate Bookings. We're one big family of music aficionados and we want to spread this love.
For this first episode we've asked our friend Robbert Tilli, who wrote a longread/blog on behalf of Sugar Mountain, to join us. Sugar Mountain is a concert series from the legendary Paradiso in Amsterdam, which typically focuses on roots, country and related genres, always paying respect to the rich American musical heritage but with an eye on the future.
LONGREAD // BLOG - Fans want more of the same, while real artists prefer to continuously surprise. Nicole Atkins does both on her fifth album Italian Ice. With those dice falling from her elegant hand on the album cover, is she illustrating it was all in all a gamble? The result is the best you can think of. With ‘Four times six above’ she places new musical adventure next to the ballads and torch songs that naturally follow her previous album Goodnight Rhonda Lee (2017). The flavor of Italian Ice cream comes from the New Jersey shores and her very own Ashbury Park where she returns via an interesting detour to Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with co-producer Ben Tanner.
New musical challenges
Nicole Atkins never takes the easiest path. She constantly challenges herself artistically with every new record she creates. On her successful album Goodnight Rhonda Lee, she defeated her alter ego by that same name. After rehab, she had chased away her alcoholic demons. With that album she toured extensively and visited Amsterdam twice—in 2017 as semi-acoustic duo in the Q-Factory, and in 2018 backed by the band of her then label mate Dylan LeBlanc in Het Zonnehuis. Everyone thought: what a vibrant person. That feeling has remained. The musicality and joie de vivre are bursting from Italian Ice.
Extraordinarily exciting beginning production-wise
I feel that the dice that roll out of her gambling hand clearly allude to the exceptionally exciting production of the first three tracks. They may have slightly thrown-off her newly acquired fans since ‘Rhonda’, but after a taste they insatiably wanted to have more of that stuff: large ballads with monumental melodies (with a sixties aroma) that you can no longer get out of your head.
Nicole does it differently and we are first taken on a great musical adventure. In Americana and roots circles, you are increasingly seeing a change of direction in production towards more indie sounds. Think of albums by David Ramirez and Paul Cauthen. It worked for them, and it does for Nicole, although she doesn’t carry it through on the whole album. That might have been too much of a gamble.
The dilemma: more and less rain
The album opens with A.M. Gold, where the fuzzy electric guitar atmospherically colors the sound and gives the rhythm a funky touch. She sings about the dilemma we all face. In one part of the world we want more rain, in the other less. She describes our current world, an ecological dumping ground, with the fitting pun ‘Garbage of Eden’.
But, we have to keep having fun in life, so she cranks up the volume of her car radio, tuned to an AM Gold station, and sings along with the old hits of Frankie Valli and Bobby Vinton.
Oh Life! It’s getting’ harder every day,
Prayin’ for dry land in New Orleans,
prayin’ for rain in L.A..
Oh Life. Ain’t gonna find it on a screen.
Turn it up! A.M. Gold!
I wanna know that I’m not alone.
We’re stranded in the Garbage of Eden.
We’re starvin’ what we should’ve been feedin’.
Recorded with top notch band in Muscle Shoals
The ride heads to Ashbury Park from her childhood in New Jersey. The road passes through the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. There she recorded with co-producer Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes), one of the men behind Single Lock Records. The other label boss, singer-songwriter John Paul White, was also present. A group of musicians has been brought in from all directions. Most notable names are keyboardist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood, from the legendary house band of that studio.
Binky Griptite, guitarist of The Dap Kings also participates, as does percussionist Jim Sclavunos and pianist Dave Sherman of The Bad Seeds plus drummer McKenzie Smith (St. Vincent, Midlake). Colleague singers Erin Rae and Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers have ‘rolled in’ for Never Going Home Again. Spoon frontman Britt Daniel contributes in the ELO-esque song Captain. Yes, then the result shows, with so much talent in a studio where they’re not used to anything else. With all participating musicians she’s become friends over the last ten years. That’s also why they take part.
Also new, unexplored territory
But we were talking about the first three songs that are so different…
The second track Mind Eraser, written with Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) could be on an album by Nadine Shah, with all the unexpected funky and noisy twists. And that is indie. Very special. Especially those occasional filtered vocals. She’s taking you to a whole new unexplored territory. She stays there a little longer with the third track Domino, built on a groovy guitar. In the background we hear weird electronic sounds as if somewhere in the house a Kraftwerk record is spinning.
Never a volume 2 of her previous record
After Domino we’re back on musically familiar grounds, but this is no rehashed version or ‘volume 2’ of her previous record. The origin of the title for the song Forever comes from Nicole smoking a cigarette with Kelvin Holly, the life-long guitarist with Little Richard. This was at the birthday party of Spooner Oldham. In reply to Kelvin’s question how she met her husband, she said he was her tour manager first, adding: ‘I smelled him and he smelled like forever’. There you go, you got a new song, Kelvin thought. From that moment on the album and the ballads get bigger.
Give her the assignment for a Bond song
St. Dymphna and These Old Roses could not be surpassed if they were sung by Lady Shirley Bassey. In fact, it makes me wonder why she has never been asked to sing the James Bond theme song. She’s made for a 007 song. Or otherwise to be the ravishing Bond girl with that mischievous glance and those flirty movements. But only in the early years, the time of Sean Connery, when there was still plenty of smoking in movies.
In the resulting smoke screen, don’t skip the echoing bar piano pimped closing track In the Splinters. The sing-along lalalas at the end evoke the spirit of Edith Piaff.
Back home in Ashbury Park, N.J.
Could she have heard Carole King’s A Road To Nowhere on that AM Station during one of those car rides back home to Ashbury Park? It is the only cover of hers on an album where she brings out the atmosphere of the boulevard ("boardwalk") of New Jersey. Ashbury Park is no longer what it used to be. But the music remains, she wants to tell us with her new LP. It is that mixture of influences that she heard on the AM radio, growing up in a seaside town between New York (pop/rock/punk) and Philadelphia (soul).
In her difficult time, city mate Bruce Springsteen took care of her as her mentor. During corona, I have reread his autobiography Born To Run (2016) and have replayed the album of the same title. With that book fresh in your mind you understand Italian Ice even better. It’s a postcard from 2020 with the caption: Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J. We have an album here which will last for a long time.
Text by: Robbert Tilli