Nicole Atkins isn’t your typical singer. But when you find out that she’s from New Jersey, it makes so much more sense. She’s actually from Neptune City, New Jersey, hence the album title. Anyone who has ever listened to Bruce Springsteen can almost immediately recognize the similar Americana themes.
Atkins grew up listening to The Boss, and it’s no wonder why her music is so rooted with New Jersey. “There was this glory time, way back when, that I never experienced, but that you cannot escape if you live there,” she says. That even despite starting her musical career singing in North Carolina and then in New York, she’s always reminded of her home state.
But Atkins’ career begins like most with the near permanence of playing in small bars, until the chance encounter with someone in the business side of the music industry. Her debut EP Bleeding Diamonds was well-received, and now she’s set with her debut LP Neptune City which sounds as a cross between 50 and 60’s girl group pop and 70's opry.
With the opening track “Maybe Tonight” Nicole updates the nostalgic feel for jukebox girl groups like the Crystals, the Ronettes, and the Shirelles with a certain lighted Atlantic City glamour. In “Love Surreal” she mixes it up with a dance flavor that uses a Studio 54 disco ball rather than old fashion casino neon lights.
When listening to a song like “The Way It Is” (see video here) there’s an emotional picket fence that divides you between feeling exalted by Nicole’s commanding voice and feeling dreary by the hurt of questioning your love for someone: “If I was smart / I’d never call you, call you / ever again.” She makes it easier in “Kill The Headlights” by having an up-tempo beat while being able to make a confident decision to leave a cheater: “You seem surprised / That I’m leaving / One bit of some good love / And I’m gone.” At least it isn’t a bad break.
You can feel Nicole’s stage presence in her opry-like tracks where she sounds so confident and mature. Even though she might be singing of heartache, her voice is so relaxed and soothing that you could mistake her serenades as lullabies. There’s a hint of maternal character in “Together We’re Both Alone” as she’s telling her man to leave.
Despite the pain in the lyrics (“I’m sitting over Neptune City / I used to love it / It used to be pretty”) of the title track, Nicole creates such touching harmonies. It’s weird how disparate Nicole’s music is in terms of how incongruous the many portions of her music are. This isn’t by chance, and it shows you how designed her music’s complexity is: “I think about all the different layers that will go on top of it.” Yet oddly, her music always seems just about right.