It's lonely out there for listeners these days - a lot of country music wants to be pop, while Americana's gone alternative. Is there anybody out there who still wants to write accessible songs with real instruments, ideally without boring or depressing us? Fortunately, Nikki Lane has been applying for this job for some time. "Highway Queen" is her third release following "All or Nothin'," produced by Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and a high watermark that generated some decent buzz.
This time, the co-producing team of Jonathan Tyler, a veteran songwriter most recently by way of Texas, and Lane have a good sense that the voice is something of the star here. Lane, perky and light in her speaking voice, sings with a vintage vibrato. You'll hear comparisons to Dusty Springfield or Lucinda Williams - even better might be name checking the early '90s singer Sophie B. Hawkins. But whoever it sounds like most, it's impressive. It goes great with sustained John Fogerty-styled guitar like on the opener "700,000 Rednecks." Or put Lane's pipes on the standout track "Jackpot," and you've got a scorcher of a rockabilly good time. Surely Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis would approve.
True enough, not every track carries the day with enough melodic strength or avoids lyrical cliché ("Foolish Heart" and "Send In the Sun"). But a song like "Big Mouth" delights with a fairly fresh topic - how small town gossip needs a patient zero to let a secret out. And anyone with a freshly-broken marriage might to wallow in the closer "Forever Lasts Forever." It's a stunner of a weeper, swinging from laser-sharp details to poetic gut punches. Lane has called herself the "Queen of Outlaw Country," but it's an inside joke to herself. Beware of anyone that dubs their own nickname. What Lane does do well is country music with the whole country in mind. Lane's lived long stints in L.A., New York and Nashville. She's made a fine travelogue here with a blue ribbon singing instrument, drawing from the energies of many American places to tap into some universal emotions.