Jersey rocker struggles to be more than background music

Nicole Atkins is an artist, first and foremost. She studied illustration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and currently has her own business painting murals. But she is primarily a musical artist who plays her original tunes in bars and clubs across America.

Unlike other New Jersey rockers such as Bon Jovi and The Boss, 28-year-old Atkins offers more artsy rock. Falling somewhere in the wide gap between Norah Jones and Pink Floyd, her sound is quite eclectic. It is too honest for bubblegum pop, but it doesn’t quite have the kick of rock ‘n’ roll either. She often employs a minimalist technique in her music, so that the focus is predominantly on her vocals. She displays this trend on “Together We’re Both Alone,” which features a faint rhythm guitar and violins that sound like they should be playing “Kashmir” in the string tribute to Led Zeppelin. Still, the melody is in the foreground, with Atkins’ voice sultry and strong, confident and compelling.

And in this voice, Atkins offers her audience 10 distinct stories of her hometown, Neptune City, New Jersey. The album paints the small city’s glory days and the people who lived there. She looks at different angles of the city, like on the plaintive title track. She gives different characters’ perspectives, like on “Cool Enough,” a tale of growing up and leaving town. These semi-autobiographical songs create a collage that may interest listeners, only if they pay enough attention.

The problem with Neptune City is that listeners must come in with an open mind in order to fully appreciate it, for it is much too easy to use the album as background music. Atkins’ voice is certainly impressive in range and timbre, but the music itself needs a bit more spunk and continuity to thrust her into the mainstream.

Hilary Saunders may be contacted at