Nicole Atkins – Slow Phaser (2014)
Around seven years ago, when I first saw New Jersey born-and-based Nicole Atkins on “Later… With Jools Holland” promoting songs from her début album, “Neptune City”, I fell in love with her dramatic, symphonic music and dizzyingly romantic themes and expressive, impressive voice. Second album, “Mondo Amore”, was a little more difficult to love, being slightly raw and under-produced (certainly compared to its predecessor) and minus most of the cinematic flourishes of the first. It took me a while to really understand that record, but when I did, I really quite enjoyed it, although not half as much as “Neptune City”. Considering how different Nicole’s first two albums were to each other, I was very interested and, perhaps a little cautious, to hear what her new, third album, “Slow Phaser” was going to be like. Actually, I can throw that caution to the wind, because it really is an absolute joy! The big melodies and grandiose influences are all present and correct, but they have been combined with a slightly more restrained, pop sensibility, curtailing and resisting the arguably overblown excesses of the first album (I absolutely adored it), but regaining the playfulness and sparkle which seemed to have been slightly lost on the second volume. It’s a perfect compromise.
There really are some superb songs on offer here. The darkly shimmering “Who Killed The Moonlight” kicks off the album fantastically, a clever and irresistible slice of perfect pop, and is followed with the equally brilliant, country-tinged “It’s Only Chemistry”, both songs boasting the trademark Atkins dramatic flair. The dance floor classic of the future, “Girl You Look Amazing”, has a thumping beat, a simple but full, groovy, persistent bass-line and is as catchy as hell; it’s the kind of song that, if the mainstream picks it up, could be absolutely huge. The classy “Red Ropes” strongly reminds me of “Under The Blacklight”-era Rilo Kiley and could almost be a contender for a Bond theme, such is its sultry appeal, and the eclectic nature of this album is highlighted in the brilliantly ambitious “What Do You Know” which has distinct echoes of seventies prog rock. “The Worst Hangover” has an introduction that is immediately reminiscent of The Eagles and, indeed, has a classic seventies pop characteristic, combined with a smart, contemporary edge that makes it entirely impossible to dislike and the final track, “Above As Below” is a rather beauteous, dreamy track that gives the impression of Atkins floating away into the distance as the album ends.
Recorded in Malmo, Sweden, and in re-kindling her professional relationship with the producer of her début, Tore Johansson (who co-writes much of the album), Atkins has produced perhaps her most complete and accomplished piece of work to date. Yes, “Neptune City” was extremely special, a sparkling, dazzling, swooning, gorgeous collection of songs, but “Slow Phaser” focuses the energy and creativity in all of the right places and, somehow, this feels like the finished product whereas her début was an almost untameable tidal wave of of promise and talent. This album is sleek, knowing, sexy, mature and, frankly, brilliant and I only have one minor criticism – the “da da da” hook on “We Wait Too Long”; how could anybody have heard this and not said, “Hang on, that’s ‘Ruby’ by The Kaiser Chiefs!”. The use of that vocal phrase spoils that song somewhat and I’m hoping it was accidental because, if it wasn’t, it was severely misjudged. It’s a real shame, because the rest of the album is so, so damned good. Of course, such a small element of the entire work doesn’t spoil “Slow Phaser” for me at all, but, without it, it could have been pretty much flawless. Regardless, it’s a great album and I unashamedly love it.