Nicole Atkins, Italian Ice, (Single Lock Records)

Nicole Atkins has always been something of an oddball in the stiflingly traditionalist and cliquey “alt Americana” or whatever you wish to call it scene. I mean sure, she lives in Nashville and rocks the occasional pearl-button plaid and, at least when she first started making noise, employed a few pedal steel touches, but there was always something a bit “off” about her presentation that never fit in with the American Songwriter set. It is that sense of “off”ness that has allowed Atkins to shape shift over a run of albums toward a more Stax soul sound, and while her last record Goodnight Rhonda Lee was a little more C. Isaak than O. Redding, with Italian Ice she finally takes it all the way. And by “all the way” we mean “actually recorded at Muscle Shoals with Aretha Franklin’s band.” This is unabashedly fun music, outward-reaching and organically joyous, with “AM Gold” beaming at you in warm welcome: “Turn me up that AM gold/Turns me on like a radio/Then I remember I’m not alone”). “St. Dympha” hits out into The Crystals territory, a tricky road to wander but Atkins pulls it off with a wink, and “Never Going Home Again” locks into the type of uptempo country-strum The Stones tried to hit, often not successfully, from the first time they heard a Gram Parsons record. There is romance on this record of the dreamy, first-rush-of-love variety in “Captain” and “These Old Roses”, with its old-timey orchestral washes, is just about the best thing Atkins has ever produced.