Nicole Atkins' fourth album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee, was born from a period of transition for the singer and songwriter, and it comes with a few firsts. For one, it marks her debut for Single Lock Records, an Alabama label co-founded by the Civil Wars' John Paul White. During its development, she pulled up roots and relocated from her hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey to Nashville, Tennessee. On the advice of friend Chris Isaak, she also made an effort to write songs that showcase what sets her apart: those rich, classic vocals. To underscore that effort, she sought out a new production team that makes a lot of sense on paper. Niles City Sound (Josh Block, Austin Jenkins, and Chris Vivion) drew attention for their work on retro-soul singer Leon Bridges' 2015 debut. Atkins and crew recorded the album live to tape in Ft. Worth, Texas in under a week. With songs that evoke the heyday of Dusty Springfield, Brill Building pop, vintage soul, and other classic mid-century sounds, and with a voice to match, the unapologetically retro approach turns out to be a winning one in practice, too.
The title Goodnight Rhonda Lee references an alter ego that Atkins would evoke when misbehaving. With the singer struggling with sobriety during this time -- something she was open about in press surrounding the album -- as well as a family cancer diagnosis, it's a persona that Atkins is finally ready to shed. The stunning opening track, "A Little Crazy" was co-written with Isaak and sounds like it. A country-infused noir ballad with strings and a triple shot of heartache, its big melody and high-contrast performance end up setting the stage for what's to come rather than peaking out of the gate. Later, for instance, she holds her own alongside a full band and horns on the bluesy, uptempo "Brokedown Luck," and she elicits late-career Peggy Lee with the lower end of her range on the reflective "A Night of Serious Drinking" (co-written with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' James Sclavunos). Goodnight Rhonda Lee is hardly Atkins' first stylistic excursion into the past, but here, having an audibly sharp focus, a lot on her mind, and a leave-it-all-on-tape performance ethic make for her strongest impression since her debut.