I’m a big fan of Nicole Atkins. Her first album, Neptune City, was a spectacular surprise I rescued from a box of CDs in my brother’s apartment; they were advance press copies, all hopeful for the pages of his then-project, Reverb Magazine, which I was also writing for. I took the disc on a whim and, after hearing it, fell instantly in love with it. Atkins’ sound was a lush orchestral rock that blurred the past and present, mixing 60s melodic grandeur with modern bite.
I also loved her second release, Mondo Amore, though it was a very different animal, stripped of its orchestral finery in favour of a darker, rougher, more emotionally wounded aesthetic.
More recently, at the end of last year, I was surprised again to see Nicole appear on Pledgemusic – she was raising funds not only to release her next album, but also to start her own music label. She more than met her target (which restores a little of my faith in humanity), and just yesterday presented the fruits of her labour, Slow Phaser. The album won’t actually be released to the rest of the public until February 4, but pledgers were rewarded with an early copy, which I spent the entire day playing on endless repeat. (It makes a remarkably appropriate soundtrack to Warframe, who knew?)
Slow Phaser is what Nicole herself describes as a “desert disco” record, a term that seems a little nebulous until you actually hear it. The album opens with “Who Killed the Moonlight”, a low, smouldering, bass-driven groove that broods underneath Atkins’ husky vocals until it suddenly emerges into a glistening disco chorus. The transition is absolute genius, both styles playing off each other like light and shadow – aptly, as she sings of amorous lovers struggling to part as night becomes day. Moonlight is itself a disco cliche of sorts, the first of many tongue-in-cheek references she makes throughout the record.
“It’s Only Chemistry”, by comparison, is a throwback to the raucousness of Mondo Amore; it’s a fun, ambling, banjo plucking sing-along brimming with drunken world wisdom. A call and response forms, with Nicole’s drifting questions answered in kind by the motley collection of voices she’s singing with.
The next track, “Girl You Look Amazing”, is the album’s first single, and rightly so. It has a bass hook that burrows instantly under your skin – you’ll find yourself nodding your head to it like a dork without even realising. It’s one of Slow Phaser’s funkiest, most immediately accessible (and, after a drink or two, dancible) tracks.
“Cool People” is at once humourous and a little melancholy. Like a similar track from Neptune City, “Cool Enough”, it speaks of an awkward, self-conscious adolescent mindset that yearns to be part of that crowd, the confident, effortlessly popular and self-assured. Gently reflective, Nicole sings, “I am always naked in my mind / Cower in the shine of imaginary eyes / Waiting to be found out / Or just waiting to be found.” Later comes one of my favourite lines from the album: “The only dress I wear is my shadow on the wall.”
But she sings it with a wry smile, with the amusement of an adult looking back at the anxieties of their younger years.
“Red Ropes”, which rests perfectly at the midpoint of the album, is its darkest and most powerful offering. The theme of destructive connection, of being bound and shackled to those people and emotions that harm us the most, is accompanied by a steadily escalating outcry; “You said you’d show me the ropes / As you tied me to the tracks,” sings Atkins, as the droning bass and trickling guitar lines build in urgency and intensity. The climax swells to a torrent, the wailing melody bolstered by a chorus of backing vocals. The villain of the piece may also be Atkins’ previous record labels, whose commercial influence and manipulation of her creative vision led to her departure.
Other standout tracks include “Gasoline Bride”, a surprisingly upbeat disco stomper that evokes the parallel rituals of suicide, marriage and witchcraft (“My hair’s on fire / Walking down the aisle / When I turn the corner / Drown my demon side in the black water”), and “The Worst Hangover”, a wryly melodramatic indie rock tune in which Atkins repeatedly cries, “Operator! Operator! Give me number 911 – I’m dying.”
While Neptune City was an absolutely stunning debut for Nicole Atkins, Slow Phaser is her most accomplished release to date. It’s a darker, wittier, more mature album that clearly realises a number of ideas only alluded to in her previous work. Apart from the master craftsmanship of its songs, the album is most impressive in its consistency; there’s a constant throbbing energy from start to finish, the warp and weft of the music carefully measured even as it changes pace and tone. One might, in a general sense, even call it a concept album, given its commonality of style and theme.
If you want to strip away the academia, though, it’s just a bloody good dirty rock disco record. “Desert disco” indeed.