Nikki Lane is a post-modern girl, and with all that sangfroid, she’s more the sweetheart of the heavy metal rodeo than anything Gram Parsons or the Byrds envisioned. Hers is a strictly plugged-in, laid-back vibe that celebrates sweaty truckers, big tires, snuff queens, mudflap girls and a world-weary rock ’n’ roll viability that never needs to snarl to make its point.
Highway Queen, the follow-up to the Nashville-based Lane’s 2015 head-turner All or Nothing, opens with a spacey “ohyiiiiipppeeeeeeTAYaaaayyyyyyyy,” a cascade of steaming Fender Rhodes notes and a wah-wah guitar that rises from a very businesslike shuffle. The acoustic guitar strum sweeps the song forward as a dusky alto announces, “There’s 700,000 rednecks … that’s what it takes to get to the top / 700,000 rednecks know there ain’t no law gonna make me stop.” In the space of one song, Lane turns herself into the Madonna of the highway; “700,000 Rednecks” is the tale of the offstage hours of a life chasing the fame, confessing, “I travel around from town to town, do the best I can every day / I drive long hours and I don’t get a shower and I ain’t gonna brag about the pay.” It’s a song that could just as easily be the manifesto of any long-haul driver or diesel lizard trying to make bank, but Lane doubles down the opening salvo by following with “Highway Queen,” a portrait of a blacktop drifter as sexy as she is driven. With the rims rat-tat-tating, the rhythm presses a woman behind the wheel who can’t be tamed forward effortlessly. When the instruments drop out on the bridge and Lane’s voice rises like heatwaves, it’s a siren song for a whole other kind of renegade.
Lane, who’s worked as a designer, owns a boutique called High Class Hillbilly and runs with some of L.A.’s fashionista crowd, finds her most fertile creative ground in the lower working class and high white trash ferment. Like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, it’s not a kitsch position — perhaps pure observation growing up in Greenville, South Carolina — but a straight sketch of a life lived on the fringe. With the revved and rushing “Jackpot,” a firecracker of a Reno triple bar slot machine or a rundown Vegas casino, Lane shows shabby is chic when you do it right. This is one of those gambling metaphors for love that sweeps you up and drops you down with that rollercoaster wheeee! Suggesting Seven Year Ache Rosanne Cash, the urgency here is as new wave in ways as it is the outlaw country everyone’s so quick to tag her with. The retro “Companion” suggests that Dave Edmunds/Rockpile stroll as Lane half sings/half recites the outro (“Jackpot I hit the number / it as always you”); it’s a song about the notion of bunking up. Love, always a topic in Lane’s oeuvre, is a little less conventional this time around. Even the steel-drenched “Foolish Heart,” which yearns for the less than fully committed suitor, isn’t quite the classic “done me wrong/girl can’t help it” trope inspired by the cad that ran through All or Nothing.
Ironically, for all the independence and sure-footed declarations still very much in evidence here, Lane’s brash “oh yeah” firebrand feels more mature on Highway Queen. The last album’s shameless “The Right Time” and “Sleep with a Stranger” are now tempered by a more philosophical reckoning. The only real thumper is “Big Mouth,” with a Nicky Hopkins barrelhouse piano snaking through the choogling basic rock. With the electric guitar driving the track, Lane sorts through small town talk and dirty laundry to put a gossip in her place with the kind of taunting that lays down the law.
Mostly, though, Highway Queen ebbs into a post-romance awakening. “Muddy Waters” languishes as Lane confesses that done is done, and “Send in the Sun,” which has the charm of a ’50s sock hop, pledges fidelity from somewhere far, far away. By the hangover and bleak light burning through the motel blinds of the closing “Forever Lasts Forever,” Lane’s pile-driving the fairy tale ending with a sobering sadness and even more delicious steel expanding and engulfing the elegiac lament. Wiser, slightly older, and ready to hit the road, it’s a fitting endnote for an album that opens with a pair of songs deifying a woman who if not born, then certainly is driven, to run. — HOLLY GLEASON