Nicole Atkins‘ 2007 debut record, Neptune City, was a delightful update of 50’s rock and roll and folk tradition that served as a perfect showcase for her extraordinary pipes. Recorded in Sweden with her band, the Sea, many of Neptune‘s songs seemed to explore Atkins’ new life as a rockstar from an innocent, at times naive, standpoint, singing mostly about the singer-songwriter’s New Jersey hometown from which the album took part of its name. While it certainly was a solid first album, Neptune City was hardly as heartfelt and fiery as Atkins’ voice repeatedly made her out to be.
In the four years since her debut release, Atkins’ life has taken a number of drastic turns. She cut ties with Columbia Records, lost every member of her backing band, and broke up with her longtime boyfriend, all in a matter of months. Her second LP, Mondo Amore, is, for better or worse, the story of her way back.
A much rawer, more satisfying record than its predecessor, Mondo Amore follows Atkins as she rediscovers herself through a wide palette of musical influences. And for the most part, it’s this new, more volatile Atkins that permeates the record, jumping from gritty blues to soulful piano bar balladry, from the bitter grungy Motown kiss off of “Cry Cry Cry” to the fuzzed-out, surf-rock number “You Come to Me”. Producer Phil Palazzolo has a big hand in this newfound range; his work with New Pornographers and Neko Case is an obvious reference point on Mondo Amore, if only for Case’s ability to hold together a variety of genres, themes, and influences with her huge voice.
That isn’t to say that the album is all uncharted territory.”This is for Love” and “You Were the Devil”, for instance, recall the sort of soulful roots-rock that pervaded Neptune City, while elegiac album highlight “War is Hell”, which pairs Atkins up with Jim James of indie titans My Morning Jacket, could’ve easily been slotted into the second half of Atkins’ last full-length. Mondo Amore is certainly much more than a mere rehash, though, almost all of her new material is marked with an acquired sense of lyrical maturity that, while rather forlorn and downcast, could hardly be called cheerless. Even at her most downcast, the melancholy longing of the excellent “Hotel Plaster”, Atkins’ vocal presence is more than enough to carry the track to its buoyant end, which finds her singing hopefully: “Pray for answers, hold on to our life.”
All that aside, though, much of the album sounds the same, and further listens do little to differentiate between the all-too-many string flourishes and bursts of guitars. In other words, there isn’t much here past the immediacy of a few strong tracks. Once you’re done tapping your foot to the catchy little honky-tonk rhythm that drives “My Baby Don’t Lie” or forced from your head the huge wordless refrain that emerges about a minute into album opener “Vultures”, you’ve just about heard all this record has to offer.