Nikki Lane: Highway Queen

static1-squarespace

Nikki Lane
Highway Queen
(New West)
Rating: 3. 5 out of 5 stars

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. The production by both the singer and her boyfriend Jonathan Tyler (who also contributes with backing vocals and guitar) neatly balances between slightly slick and earnestly earthy without offending those who lean to either camp.

A few mid-tempo rockers like the stripped-down, pedal steel drive of the thumping “Lay You Down” and the feisty Loretta Lynn-styled strut of “Big Mouth” (about trash talking in a small town by a rival with loose lips), bring just enough twang to consider them country while staying firmly in singer-songwriter territory. Those hoping for a shot of Chicago blues in a song titled “Muddy Waters” will have to settle for a bittersweet ballad with those words taken literally as in “muddy waters, beneath my feet,” with an angry protagonist whose “mind is made up, gonna shoot to kill.”

The retro countrypolitan and rawer, roots elements that informed Lane’s previous Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin’ have been sanded down slightly on this follow-up. But when Lane and her band get grinding on this disc’s first single “Jackpot,” as she shouts “Viva Las Vegas” while describing a road trip to casinos across the country playing slots and picking up guys, she carries the flame of Emmylou Harris and her Hot Band with pride. That’s also true for the closing “Forever Lasts Forever,” a melancholy breakup song opening with the picturesque “The only ring left on my finger/ is a lighter shade of skin,” and shows that Lane’s emotional sensibilities are just as resolute as her sassier ones.