The shores of New Jersey are littered, quite literally, with small towns whose better days are far in the past. They're towns that have been written about, and sung over; towns that have been mythologized and idealized; and they are the towns that 28-year-old musician Nicole Atkins--a native of Neptune City, located a stones throw from fabled Asbury Park--was born and raised in.
They can be places steeped in their own history, buried under the sense of their own pasts. Places of hey-days and what-once-was. And it's that sense of something lost, and of what perhaps should have been, and what might be, that permeates Atkins's debut, Neptune City.
"Neptune City is just this old place," Nicole says. "There was this glory time, way back when, that I never experienced, but that you cannot escape if you live there. Everyone talks about. They almost yearn for it, but I never experienced it. So maybe this album is my attempt to build something new on top of all that."
It's these environs that brought her to where she is today. Nicole was that kid slightly out of touch. When her friends were collecting the latest New Kids on the Block album, she was raving about Traffic or Cream. At the age of 13 she found an old beat up guitar in the attic of her house. It had belonged to an uncle who died when he was young, and she taught herself to play a Grateful Dead song. Her father turned her on to blues artists like Jimmy Reed, and allowed Nicole to sit in on sessions with local musician friends. And then she left that town, that place, behind, attending art school in North Carolina, where she played for three years with the North Carolina alt-country band Los Parasols before making a name for herself as a solo performer on New York City's anti-folk scene. She slept in an old Dodge Ram Charger on Avenue A, finally, with a little help from her friends, among them David Muller (occasionally a member of Yoko Ono's band, Fiery Furnaces and Fischer Spooner) finally discovered her own sound.
And it's that sound that washes over Neptune City, produced by Tore Johansson (Cardigans, Franz Ferdinand, OK Go, Saint Etienne, New Order), an album that sounds like it came from anywhere but the New Jersey Americana rock tradition made famous by Bruce Springsteen. Her music ranges far afield: at some times vaudevillian, at others psychedelic, a little bit country, a dash from early musicals, all under a cloud of pop-noir, often all coming in the very same song. Atkins writes songs that could have come from an episode of Six Feet Under, or an updating of Grease, as directed by David Lynch.
The characters in her tunes seem to live in an idealized past. "This record is the history of my town; it's the history of my family and friend in this town," she explains. "From the time I was a kid I started collecting these sad little tragically beautiful personal stories from the people in my life, and my own as well. That sense of history really appeals to me as an artist." These tales became her blue prints, her inspiration, that would become songs like "Maybe Tonight," a Ronnettes sounding traipse about a possible chance meeting, or "The Way It Is," a dark and haunting defense, an insistence by someone hell bent on finding out for herself that something might be wrong. But it might be right, too.
The record calls to mind Roy Orbison if he were a woman; the bleak visions of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen; the darkly mysterious girl group-on-acid musings of Julee Cruise and Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti; the sorrow of Patsy Cline, the ‘60s experimentation of Love and Nuggets; all with a redeeming sense of hope amidst the emotional wreckage that is all Nicole. A sense that's perfectly captured on "Cool Enough," on which she sings, "I don't care where you're going/You're taking me with you/This place got nothing that I could want/But I think that someday, I might feel different/But still, that's someday/Still that's someday/So take me with you."
"War Torn" is about the frustration of a long-distance relationship that inevitably must end for your own good, while "Neptune City," with its double-tracked harmonies providing its ghostly atmosphere, is an elegy, an homage, to her home.
Over everything, Atkins brings a painterly quality to her music, fitting for a woman who studied illustration while at UNC Charlotte, and still has her own mural business. Her songs are aural paintings, mixing and matching colors and sounds.
"That's why I have such a hard time playing solo these days," says Nicole, who plied her trade in hundreds of bars North Carolina, New York, and New Jersey before attracting the attention of a major entertainment attorney, who helped her get signed. "When I write a song, I think about all the different layers that will go on top of it."
In the end, Neptune City comes across as a restoration project in a way, an attempt to build something new on something old. There's an acute subtlety to the art of restoration. Do it wrong and you're simply cribbing the past. Do it right and you're actually, in a profound way, carrying it forward into today. And that's what Neptune City accomplishes. It brings its past with it, carries its heart on its sleeve, and strides hopefully into a better day it can hardly imagine, but hopes will be there nonetheless.