Low-hanging fog and heartache loom large and heavy over New Jersey-bred firecracker Nicole Atkins’ sophomore release, Mondo Amore. Written against the backdrop of tremendous personal and professional upheavals and break-ups in 2009 and 2010, the album plunges any willing listener straight into the maelstrom of Atkins’ own Blue Valentine with oftentimes harrowing — but always thoroughly enchanting — results. Imbued with a velveteen warmth, longing and sultry vulnerability, Atkins’ voice is a corker; as if Loretta Lynn, Stevie Nicks and PJ Harvey were reborn inside a spunky young woman from Neptune, Mondo Amore’s finer moments are buoyant (“Cry Cry Cry”), resonant (“This is for Love”) and smoky (“The Tower”) slices of soulful folk-pop. Album opener and lead single “Vultures” unveils itself with the ominous warning, “Careful where you walk/Remain in the light/Watch where death resides/It’ll find you from all sides,” and the craggy journey doesn’t look up from there, and thank God for it. Like her fellow Old Soul Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes), Atkins isn’t afraid to walk through the creaky, dark house to get to the sunny orchard; and while her flair for the dramatic might keep her warm at night during her Come to Jesus moments more than anything else she gravitates to, the heavy lifting here and the extreme emotional tolls are indeed her finest (and most essential) artistic outings to date. Heartbreaking torcher “Hotel Plaster” is unforgettable, leading a heartbroken Atkins to admit, “My tears could learn to play the violin/But it might not bring you back/At least we’d have a pretty soundtrack,” and later with the ultimate tear-stained scabbard, “We broke the diamond with our bitter words/Hold on to our life.” This is the kind of ultra-poignant gem that you pray to come in contact with just to pay it forward. (Razor & Tie) –Carrie Alison