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. Alternating between immediacy and mud, Highway Queen has a distinct, dusky vibe that's alluring, drawing listeners into its hidden recesses. Lane favors old-fashioned forms -- there are hints of girl group, honky tonk, rock & roll boogie, and outlaw country percolating beneath the album's surface -- but when the tempo slows down and the vistas stretch out, she holds her own with Neko Case, assaying moody journeys into the dark corners of the soul. The key to Lane's appeal is that she's not an art-pop vocalist, she's a country singer, keeping her wounded emotions and kicking rhythms in the forefront; the hidden emotions certainly matter but the gut-level impact matters more. That's what gives Highway Queen its edge. As impressionistic as the smeary sounds can be, it's an album that rests on its sturdy songs and Lane's powerful performance, two elements that keep Highway Queen as engaging on repeated listens as it is on its first. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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