Release Date: Feb 17, 2017
Record label: New West Records
Nikki Lane's 2014 album for New West Records was a splashy affair, coming with an endorsement from Dan Auerbach, the leader of the Black Keys, who produced the album. As excellent as All or Nothin' was -- and it was a sharp, smart record, walking the fine line separating retro-Americana and modern country -- it was also somewhat hampered by its association with Auerbach, suggesting that Lane may be a hipster roots act. Highway Queen, Lane's 2017 sequel co-produced by Lane and Jonathan Tyler, dismisses any of these notions, thanks to its stripped-down noir-ish production.
Nikki Lane, a Greenville, SC-bred and Nashville-based Americana artist, sings with the weary wisdom of a woman twice her age. Blessed with a voice like fire and wood smoke, and embodying a ball-kicking attitude that cuts through in every performance, Lane could probably get away with singing just about anything she wants. She's a star, or at least, she certainly could be one if she turned her band towards the bright lights of Music Row.
Nashville-based country singer/songwriter Nikki Lane opens up her third album with a rousing, "Yippee-ki-yay." That octave-jumping intro to "700,000 Rednecks" is more declamatory than symbolic, announcing not only her return after three years, but also a reaffirmation of her roots. Lane grew up in Greenville, S.C., but moved to Los Angeles and later to New York to chase rock 'n' roll dreams. The songs from those two albums, 2011's Walk of Shame and 2014's All or Nothin' are a little rowdier and reactionary, whereas Highway Queen represents a more focused retelling of the past few years.
When Nikki Lane sings about a woman with "tight blue jeans and long black hair" who will "come to play but she won't stay," on the title track to her third album, it's difficult to imagine that's not autobiographically based. As these songs progress, it's clear that whether she's describing a woman with a "Foolish Heart" who is infatuated, and somewhat concerned, with a lover who has her "hanging by a word" or expressing her desire to get to the top because "there ain't no one gonna make me stop," these tunes hew awfully close to her own feelings and aspirations. Although there is nothing new in bringing personal experiences to your music, Lane's husky voice — falling somewhere between the toughness of Lydia Loveless, the gusty vulnerability of Shannon McNally and the tangy torch of Neko Case -- carries these country-tinged pop rockers with an edge that's alternately defiant and vulnerable.
F emale self-reliance runs through the country genre from the year dot. Nikki Lane, however, is gunning her engine hard. "But the highway queen/ Don't need no king," drawls the daughter of an asphalt paver on the title track of her third album, a set of songs in which feeble hearts are tossed to the side of the road like litter, and Lane gets to drive a monster truck in the video for Highway Queen.
"S even hundred thousand rednecks - that's what it takes to get to the top," yells Nashville singer Nikki Lane, having calculated exactly where she wants to be. After working with producers including the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, her third album sees her take more control, along with boyfriend Jonathan Tyler, for a boisterous collection of firecracking "outlaw country." Lane's fiery, Loretta Lynn/Emmylou Harris-style vocals deliver tales of life on the road, smalltown gossips and female empowerment. She sassily sings of breaking hearts in every town, but Send the Sun alludes to the depressions caused by conducting a relationship via telephone.
A weekly roundup of must-hear music from The Times' music staff. This week's picks include the latest from veteran singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, under-the-radar Americana artist Fred Eaglesmith and the outspoken country of Nikki Lane. Ryan Adams, "Prisoner" (Pax Am/Blue Note) One way to hear Adams' song-for-song interpretation of Taylor Swift's "1989" was as a coping device.