REVIEW: Nikki Lane – ‘Highway Queen’

LifeInASong_UK

Nikki Lane’s music has been heard on Bob Harris’ radio shows, and Bob is a sucker for sultry female singers. If you are too, and were seduced by Miranda Lambert’s new direction, Nikki fits in sublimely. There’s incredible confidence in her vocal, where she doesn’t care too much if she’s heard or not; she’s just not giving you much of a choice.

She told Rolling Stone Country before she recorded this album: ‘I want to make my own truck. Why don’t we have a truck that’s marketed towards women? I want to put an escalade and a truck together and call it the “Highway Queen.”’ The album can certainly be on rotation while trucking across the highways of the South, or even in a Volvo on the M25.

Born in South Carolina, Nikki has worked with fellow admirer of great rootsy sounds Dan ‘Black Keys’ Auerbach, and her debut was produced by Dave Cobb, who crafted Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. On album three, assisted by the expertise of guitarist-producer Jonathan Tyler, she adds ten more tunes to her catalogue. She comes to the UK in June, so for a slice of roots music there will be few hours finer than seeing these ten songs and others performed in front of you.

Nikki has just the right amount of phlegm in her delivery, giving it what some may call an East Nashville grit or recall the mighty Neko Case of The New Pornographers or Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley.

The musicality is excellent, as in the cardboard-box percussion sound of Lay You Down, the girl-group harmonies deep in the mix of Companion, and the marvellous pedal-steel guitar on Foolish Heart. The title track is spacious, with a cinematic opening giving way to a narrative about a woman on the road who ‘don’t need no king…It ain’t who she loves, it’s who she’s holding’. It’s a superb lyric, as with most on an album whose first word is ‘Yippee-kay-ya-aay!’.

700,000 Rednecks is the album’s first song (‘That’s what it takes to get to the top’), and as she sings of the way to succeed (similar to a comedian’s edict that you can earn a living by having 1000 true fans) you can hear the sound of Nikki’s lips right next to the microphone. Amazingly, all her vocals had to be re-recorded as Nikki didn’t think she sounded mean enough in the first run-through. She should convince at least seven rednecks to listen to the album, and maybe 699,993 more.

This mean side is showcased on Big Mouth which, as with most tracks on Nikki’s album, possesses a great groove and a cracking guitar solo. That is not to say all ten tracks are identical, because there’s something novel in every tune. Here it’s the brilliantly rockin’ riff in the chorus, which pushes the lyric: ‘Please refrain from speaking my name’. Nikki, like the best of them, can spew as well as croon.

Send The Sun (‘Don’t let the darkness get you down’) is a lovely tune in 12/8 that says all it wants to say within three minutes, like a pop song. Her voice catches on a line in the second verse which makes it genuine and impassioned, unlike a pop song.

Muddy Waters is not about the bluesman but about the trouble Nikki has faced in the lead-up to the song: ‘My mind is all made up, gonna shoot to kill…Don’t matter what you say’. The album’s closer Forever Lasts Forever (‘Till forever becomes “never again”’) is a love-gone-wrong tune with a gentle rhythm. She describes her wish for a ‘peaceful dissolution’, and a listener can empathise.

The most fun song is Jackpot, a hyperkinetic song that would sound great at a honky-tonk. There’s even barrelhouse piano, to better soundtrack Nikki’s spree at America’s best casino resorts that feature in the lyrics. She runs away with someone she hit the jackpot with: ‘Let’s try and roll the dice and run away somewhere…Put the quarter in the slot!’ Even for a non-gambler it’s an enticing prospect. Margo Price fans will find something to love with this, as it recalls the best tracks on her very good LP.

Her clothing store is called ‘High Class Hillbilly’, which can well double as a description of her music. As hillbilly music goes, what Nikki labels ‘outlaw country’, this is certainly high class.

Jonny Brick

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