I’m going to admit to something here. Every time I heard or read Nicole Atkins describe her upcoming album, Slow Phaser, as disco prog rock, I got a little nervous. The description conjured images of organs and flutes, danceable beats, and maybe some heavy studio manipulation of Atkins’s voice. What I pictured wasn’t at all what we’d come to expect from a Nicole Atkins record. After spending some time with Slow Phaser, though, I found out that my worries were unfounded. Yes, Slow Phaser is a very different record for Nicole Atkins; but she and producer Tore Johansson have struck a balance that results in, probably, her best album to date.
The album opens with “Who Killed The Moonlight.” The track lets us know right away that Slow Phaser will be a departure from the first two Nicole Atkins LPs. There’s the disco beat, but there’s also something else. Nicole Atkins is a belter with a beautifully powerful voice. Sometimes, her voice can overwhelm everything else about a song. From Slow Phaser‘s opening track, though, Atkins and Johansson rein her voice in a bit, unleashing its full power only sparingly. On “Who Killed The Moonlight,” Atkins’s voice builds along with the song’s disco-inspired chorus.
“It’s Only Chemistry” changes things up, bringing in banjo, piano, a group call and response singalong, and some progressively more soulful Nicole Atkins vocals as it explains why many romantic trials and tribulations are out of our hands. Groovy single and pick-up line “Girl You Look Amazing” seems scientifically engineered to stick with you, its bassline and chorus of “Girl, you look a-maay-ziiiing…” burrowing their way deep into your brain. Early single “Red Ropes” is a dark, slow burner about the difficulties of getting out of even the worst relationships.
“Cool People” is a pretty piece of electro indie pop in which Atkins is “waiting to be found out” for the uncool homebody she really is. She once again relies much more heavily on the personality rather than the power of her voice, scaling things back to fit the introspective nature of the song. The full-on prog treatment comes with “What Do You Know,” Atkins’s vocals uncharacteristically distant, almost buried in the mix. The album closes with “Above As Below,” a song describing us as aimlessly floating skeleton ships, which dispenses with the disco and electronica in favor of some subdued Atkins singing accompanied by guitar, keys, and drums.
With Slow Phaser, Nicole Atkins officially sheds the “neo-noir” tag that’s been applied to her since her debut, Neptune City. She’s made a record that showcases not only the power of her voice, but also its expressiveness. She’s retained both the dark and humorous streaks that have always run through her songwriting. And, in more than a few places on Slow Phaser, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Slow Phaser is out on February 4th on Nicole Atkins’s Oh’ Mercy! Records.