Nicole Atkins is a Jersey girl and she could probably make any guy sing, “sha la la la la la”, but the sound of her debut album has nothing to do with Tom Waits. Neptune City is big and dreamy, swirling with strings or riding a wall-of-sound rhythm section reminiscent of Phil Spector’s best girl group productions. The arrangements on this album are vibrant, lush, and propulsive. The instrumentation will swoop in and carry you along for a 40-minute ride through timeless chamber pop.
That said, the primal force that drives Neptune City is the huge and charismatic voice of Nicole Atkins. She possesses the tough charm of Chrissie Hynde and can come across just as world-weary. But then Atkins punches a higher level, and her warm, full alto comes booming forth. We sometimes forget that sound is a physical force, but not when this rock chanteuse is belting it out.
In the original mix of this album, her powerful performances were apparently harder to find in the mix. Initially scheduled for release on September 6, Neptune City was held back after a couple of early reviews noted that Atkins’ singing was lost amidst the instrumentation. In stepped new Columbia head honcho Rick Rubin, recently hailed by the New York Times as the man who could save the record industry. While that remains to be seen, the Buddha of rock probably saved this record from mediocrity. In an e-mail conversation, Nicole explained that Rubin stripped the mastering off the album, which “really opened the sound up.”
This makes sense and should have been the approach from the get-go. Neptune City is, in some ways, a throwback piece, yearning for an older and purer age, tugging its textures forward through the fog of time. In today’s mixing and mastering sessions, the emphasis is on squashing the dynamics until the music sounds tight. For dance and teen pop, this technique tends to work really well. Not so with a record such as this, however, where we need the quieter moments so that the contrasting crescendos will truly come alive. On songs like “Together We’re Both Alone” and “Cool Enough”, Atkins and her band the Sea know how to mine a low and somber mood before bursting into an orchestral chorus that ascends above time and place. This is the vantage Nicole holds in the busted fairytale torch-song that is the album’s title track, in which she sings, “I’m sitting over Neptune City / I used to love it / It used to be pretty”.
The whole of the album is held aloft in this lovely limbo. Sometimes we sink down into the sooty metropolitan sky, but only to rise above its atmosphere where we can again see the stars. If this metaphor feels hokey and a little sentimental, well, those qualities are present on Neptune City, as well. Fortunately, Atkins and company imbue the record with the kind of melancholic tinge that permeates even the most joyous of girl group songs (like “Be My Baby”!), while keeping a healthy distance from the empty sentimentality of so many Broadway show tunes (gee, thanks for the “Memory”, Andrew Lloyd Webber). Nicole Atkins deserves to find a sizeable audience. Fans of Rufus Wainwright should definitely come calling, along with those of you who’ve looked down on your hometown and dreamed of something more.