Nicole Atkins – “The Tower”

I trust that by now in my life I have witnessed enough home-grown prodigies to recognize one when I see one.  Please watch Nicole Atkins’s acoustic rendition of “The Tower”She is accompanied here by an incredible slide guitarist, and it is filmed on Brooklyn’s East River:

Then, go see her perform it live, and compare the dynamic range of the two to get a sense of this woman’s talent.  When she and her drummer and guitarist opened up for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC this past summer, I knew right away I was witnessing something very special.

“War Torn” nearly rocked me off my seat and, at the same time, left me feeling cold, scared, and alone. Not an easy thing to pull off in your typical rock arena. Near the end came “The Tower” which sealed the deal.  When you watch her acoustic, down by the river version,  you can see how touched she is by this enigmatic song. I could say things here like she is writing allegory against rock and rockabilly, and at the same time, hard rock.  I could describe her music as deep noir due to the soundscapes they are able to produce.

About that night in July,  I could even say they are a really gifted trio immediately stealing into territories reserved for legends like Roy Orbison that shift quickly into Janis-like wails doing so to prog rock and synth. But to make these kinds of comparisons is cheating.  I am not out to reduce her to a set of tropes, nor anyone else for that matter.  This is just where language fails to describe what is heard.

Nicole and her team of musicians are entirely their own, and if they have moments on stage that are reminiscent of others, those pass quickly into what they have created for themselves. Her voice is its own gift: brooding, whimsical, dark and electric.  Her songwriting is narrative, studied, and very talented.  And the music that comes out of it is yet another artistic offering in the mix. From acoustic to electric, it’s entirely modern with intentional nods to signature musical flourishes.  Their ability to move in and out of genres, while the music moves around the lyrics, often in contrast to them, at the same time as she pushes for new space for herself is what made the trio so special this summer.

The musical cadences, or the pace of it all, was what I most enjoyed about the live performance this summer,  and what still keeps me listening to Slow Phaser now. It has all stayed with me.  There seems to be a great deal of care taken to create this kind of dynamic within each song. The proportion of lyrics to sound,  and the rise and fall of music is more than interesting; it creates the emotional  frame of each song well beyond the lyrics.  This level of intentional layering is hypnotic and pleasing.  Nicole also seems to really enjoy rocking out to her music,  as well as singing her own songs on-stage. And to be honest – it’s really refreshing to see this particular brand of musical appreciation alive and well in this Neptune, New Jersey powerhouse.  It seems like she can do just about anything.  I also met Nicole and the guitarist (and, right now I am sorry now not to have caught his name because his guitar playing was spectacular)!   I did mention this to both of them – how much I enjoyed the show, how strong I thought it all was.  They were both very nice, responsive and excited to be standing there talking to a stranger.  If you watch the video for “Girl, You Look Amazing“  you can see her well-honed sense of wry humor as well.

Slow Phaser, released on Oh’Mercy! Records in 2014, is so worth it.   Her earlier recordings,  Bleeding Diamonds (2006), Neptune City ( 2007), and Mondo Amore (2011) will  provide you with the full arc of her broad talent.