ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
August 4, 2017 (way too late)
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Jeezus I'm late with this one! No matter, just gives us more time to enjoy last Episode's robust playlist. But now it's time to move forward with some new stuff for your previewing pleasure. This includes the strongest song yet from Tyler Childers' Purgatory. We're also beginning our romance with White Buffalo's forthcoming release, and reveling in Margo Price's surprise EP! Plus, there's not much prettier this year than Tallest Man on Earth's sublime new EP with chamber folk outfit yMusic.
There's always been a backward glance to Nicole Atkins' music, a borrowing of sounds from years gone by. From the early pop drama of her 2007 Neptune City Lights full-length debut through the heavier rock 'n soul of 2011's overlooked Mondo Amore and the "desert disco prog rock" that powered 2014's Slow Phaser. Atkins' new Goodnight Rhonda Lee explores that tendency to its fullest, released on John Paul White and Ben Tanner's discerning Single Lock label and played largely live in studio with the band that backed up Leon Bridges on his memorable debut. Story has it that Atkins was challenged by her producer to leave her indie rock elements on the back burner and to focus on the Muscle Shoals sounds that have always been lurking behind her music. The resulting collection brings to mind names like Peggy Lee, Dusty Springfield and even Jenny Lewis, offering a generous dose of noir psychedelia with moments of Spector-esque drama.
Atkins cowrote the opener, "A Little Crazy" with longtime friend Chris Isaak. It immediately sets the stage with a "To Sir With Love" vibe, featuring a soaring vocal and a flicker-to-a-conflagration build that milks the melancholy for all it's worth. Largely freed from the heavy production of her earlier records, the horns and strings of Rhonda Lee serve to untether Atkins' tremendous vocal talents. "Brokedown Luck" is typical of most of these originals, opening with a cautious restraint before erupting into a sharp and soulful, shamelessly melancholy chorus.
The title track serenades Nicole Atkins' bad girl alter ego, the wayward woman responsible for all her bad choices and driving over life's potholes. Despite dismissing her with a charming wave, Atkins treats Rhonda Lee with unexpected sympathy and fondness. This sense of humor and self deprecation are found throughout the record, from the overwrought emotions to the sad sack persona. But it's also a remarkably addictive collection, deep with hooks and a genuine sense of musical legacy. Shelby Lynne has done this exceptionally well before (though with little or no levity), and Joan Osborne can pull it off with zero irony or self-consciousness. But most other singers who attempt a retro vibe like "If I Could" risk ending up coming across as costumed clowns and wannabes. What might've been Atkins' one-note punchline is instead a rich and diverse statement, a supremely cool tear through early rock, country-soul and Brill Building pop.
Nicole Atkins' skill is perhaps best appreciated on Rhonda Lee's less bombastic cuts. "Darkness Falls So Quiet" is a slinky groover, punctuated with perfect horn accents and lazy strings. The horns are muted and paired with saaaad pedal steel on "A Night of Serious Drinking", a torch ballad boasting the CD's most mature and nuanced vocal performance. I'd advise listeners to track down live video takes of some of these numbers, captured during the nearly five-year journey that birthed this record. What you'll catch here that might elude you on the album is twofold: That sense of humor and edgy charm that should land Nicole Atkins a big screen gig any moment now, as well as the realization that she executes this all without the use of modern studio sleight-of-hand. Goodnight Rhonda Lee isn't just a momentary detour or a passing novelty. With her fourth full-length project, Nicole Atkins has reached into the past for a fully satisfying and relevant pleasure.
- Kathleen Edwards, "Mint" Voyageur (Concord, 12)
- Rod Melancon, "Mary Lou" Southern Gothic (Blue Elan, 17)
- Bohannons, "Run the Road" Luminary Angels (Cornelius Chapel, 17)
- Ray Wylie Hubbard, "House of the White Rose Bouquet" Tell the Devil ... (Bordello, 17)
- Tyler Childers, "Tattoo" Purgatory (Hickman Holler, 17)
- Charlie Parr, "Dog" Dog (Red House, 17)
- Emmylou Harris, "Icy Blue Heart" Bluebird (Warner, 88)
- Juanita Stein, "Someone Else's Dime" America (Hand Written, 17)
- Joseph Huber, "Sons of the Wandering" Suffering Stage (Huber, 17)
- White Buffalo, "The Observatory" Darkest Darks Lightest Lights (Unison, 17) D
- Nick Lowe, "Darlin' Angel Eyes" Rose of England (Yep Roc, 17)
- Jeremy Pinnell, "Different Kind of Love" Ties of Blood and Affection (Sofaburn, 17)
- Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, "Forget About Georgia" Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (Rounder, 17)
- Cross Canadian Ragweed, "Jimmie and Annie" Highway 377 (Smith, 99)
- Steel Woods, "Better in the Fall" Straw in the Wind (Woods, 17)
- Iron & Wine, "Thomas County Law" Beast Epic (Sub Pop, 17)
- Jessica Lea Mayfield, "Sorry is Gone" Sorry is Gone (ATO, 17) D
- John Murry, "One Day (You'll Die)" Short History of Decay (Latent, 17)
- David Ramirez, "Twins" We're Not Going Anywhere (Sweetword, 17)
^ Nicole Atkins, "A Little Crazy" Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock, 17) D
- Jason Isbell, "Hope the High Road" Nashville Sound (Southeastern, 17)
- Avett Brothers, "Smoke in Our Lights" Carolina Jubilee (Ramseur, 03)
- Texas Gentlemen, "Pain" TX Jelly (New West, 17)
- Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, "Is It Too Much" Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross, 17)
- Margo Price, "Weakness" Weakness EP (Third Man, 17) D
- House and Land, "Rich Old Jade" House and Land (Thrill Jockey, 17)
- Tallest Man on Earth w/yMusic, "There's No Leaving Now" Tallest Man on Earth w/yMusic (Rivers/Birds, 17) D
- Jolie Holland & Samantha Parton, "You Are Not Needed Now" Wildflower Blues (Holland/Parton, 17)
- Grant Lee Buffalo, "Bethlehem Steel" Copperopolis (Slash, 96)
- Hiss Golden Messenger, "Standing in the Doorway" single (Merge, 17)