Nicole Atkins - Goodnight Rhonda Lee (2017)

On Goodnight Rhonda Lee Nicole Atkins makes full use of all her natural talents as a vocalist. She is among the best of the current crop of women rockers and, to her credit, auto-tune does not appear to be among the devices she uses to make her records. If she has become a victim of the gross trend that depends on electronic gimmickry to mask vocal deficiencies it's not obvious here. The gifted Asbury Park, NJ native, now living in Nashville, doesn't need her voice manipulated and based on the retro-rock music presented here the overused and mostly robotically sounding piece of technology just wouldn't fit in. Her fine alto is all that is needed.

Atkins' eleven song record is a throwback to the era of classic Top Forty radio. Whether she is paying tribute to the country queens of the 60s and 70s on the title track, channelling Aretha Franklin on "Listen Up," or trying to be a female version of Roy Orbison on "A Little Crazy" (composed with her friend Chris Isaak) the arrangements and vocals are all extremely well done.

Other standouts include the horn laden soul tune "Brokedown Luck," and "Darkness Falls So Quiet," a track that could have shown up on Dusty In Memphis. Also compelling is the story of her beleaguered hometown with its self-explanatory title, "I Love Living Here (Even When I Don't)".

One of the things that make Goodnight Rhonda Lee interesting is that it takes us beyond topics that pop songs usually tackle. Fueled by Atkins' hardfought and ultimately victorious battle against alcoholism the title of her fourth, full length release comes from the name she used when misbehaving. The singer is telling both Rhonda Lee and the listener that she is a different person today and her alter ego named in the title is no longer welcome in her life. There is even a song, "A Night Of Serious Drinking," that appears to discuss her addiction. While the title is an obvious reference the lyrics are a bit cryptic. Even so, you can tell Atkins' past is definitely on her mind.

Goodnight Rhonda Lee is the result of a truly talented artist who bucks trends and isn't afraid to bare her soul while managing to entertain us at the same time. It's a serious work that, unlike a lot of great art, avoids being depressing. It just could be the best album of 2017.