Nicole Atkins is an artist with a curious and varied set influences from classic soul to roots rock to blues to country to 60s psychedelic rock and beyond. Most of her records lean more on one particular influence over the others. Her last album, for example, was mostly aimed at being a classic soul/Stax recordings-type deal. However with this, her fifth album, she seems to throw in all of her influences at once to see what sticks.
A bold move for sure. And one that should not necessarily work. However, somehow Atkins pulls off this feat without the record every feeling messy or shambolic. Instead, she, for the most part, effortlessly glides from the soulful sound of opener AM Gold to the slinky pop of Domino and the country balladry of Captain, to name just a few of genres at play here. It is an impressive range. And there is something exhilarating listening to Atkins pull it all together, particularly when the LP teeters on the edge of falling apart from being pulled in so many different directions.
Away from the eclectic nature of the album, the next most striking thing is how defiantly retro the whole thing is. This is a record steeped in music history. You can tell this just from listening. But the effect is deepened with the knowledge the album was recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound studio. And members of her all-star backing band included Spooner Oldham and David Hood of The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (as well as members of The Dap-Kings, The Bad Seeds, and Midlake).
In fact, if there is one thing stopping Italian Ice from being a five-star effort is it is a little overly referential. Atkins herself likened the album to taking an “an acid trip through my record collection.” And this is no terrible thing as Atkins clearly has an excellent record collection. At the same time, you can’t help but feel the ghosts of legends past haunting proceedings.
Thankfully, this does not detract too much from what an accomplished musician and performer Atkins is. She particularly excels vocally, showing she is equally adept at soulful crooning (Forever) as she is Joplin-esque wailing (Road to Nowhere) or ramblin’ country stylings (Never Going Home Again).
Lyrically the album is also sharper and more incisive than looks may first appear. Take the aforementioned Domino, a song that is much darker and angrier than its glitzy packaging would suggest, especially with its defiant refrain of “I’m not gonna play / Safe and sound / When the world comes tumblin’, tumblin’ down.” There are several other examples of sharp barbs like this hidden under sweet melodies.
It seems like despite slowly building an impressive body of work over the last decade and a bit, Atkins has been slept on as an artist. If there is any justice that is a state of affairs that should change with this impressive fifth effort.