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Album: "Mondo Amore" Rating: 4/5 Pitchforks Artist: Nicole Atkins Label: Razor & Tie

East-coast based artist Nicole Atkins burst on the scene in 2007 with the critically acclaimed "Neptune City." Four years later, with a new band and a new label, she returns with "Mondo Amore."

Perhaps looking for a change of pace, she replaced all the members of her live band the Sea, now calling it the Black Sea. In addition, she left Columbia Records and was picked up by Razor & Tie Records. Fortunately for Atkins and her fans, none of these changes distracted or prevented her from releasing a stirring sophomore record, released on Feb. 8.

"Mondo Amore" makes a powerful first impression with “Vultures” which opens with a haunting melody featuring an imposing bass line. It slowly picks up as Atkins sings, “Vultures circling, heavy like a stone / Take all they can get until you’re dirt and bones” before the drums and guitars come in for a loud chorus.

“Vultures” has a somber tone shared by the majority of the album. Whether it’s the slow, piano-driven intro to “Heavy Boots” or the longing chorus of “Hotel Plaster” (“Think of me in a prison of hotel plaster / Far from the shelter of your side”), "Mondo Amore" has a mostly melancholy feel.

Luckily, the tone never presents a problem for the album. "Mondo Amore" is dark but it’s never overdone or forced. Atkins does throw in a couple more lively tracks, notably the upbeat “Cry, Cry, Cry” and fast-paced “You Come to Me,” and while they do feel a bit out of place, the tracks are fun enough to listen to that it doesn’t derail the record at all.

While as a whole "Mondo Amore" is a good listen, it does suffer in some spots. There are times when the backing tracks simply feel generic and ordinary. For example, the aforementioned “Cry, Cry, Cry,” while a fun song, might be a little too pop and simple. “War is Hell” is on the other side of the spectrum, featuring thoughtful lyrics, but a plodding pace.

Ultimately, what really makes this album is the outstanding vocal work by Atkins. Any deficiencies in the songs are forgotten behind her tremendous talent. She displays a wide range of styles and effortlessly transitions between them. On “You Were the Devil,” Atkins is sultry and seductive while she takes a different approach to “Hotel Plaster,” crooning beautifully to a lover somewhere far away. The album’s closing track “The Tower” is also one of the strongest. Atkins starts singing her lyrics slowly and carefully with an airy feel as she builds to the chorus which she belts out confidently.

The great thing about Atkins’ voice is that she uses it very appropriately. While she can clearly wail powerfully, she knows how to scale back and display other facets of her vocals. Because of this, when she does unleash and show off her range, it makes it all the more impressive.

With "Mondo Amore," Nicole Atkins has really shown her strength as both a singer and songwriter. Her awesome vocals and meaningful lyrics help give this album lasting appeal.

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