In the music video accompanying the opening track of her fine sophomore album All or Nothin', Nikki Lane settles a score with a friend's abusive lover by letting the business end of a baseball bat do the talking. The proclamation that comes out of the confrontation suggests a few more attitude adjustments are also in the making: "It's always the right time to do the wrong thing."
Since its release last month, All or Nothin' has become one of the most hyped neo-country records of the season, one that sells the kind of hard- and fast-living tales that modern Nashville female stars love to claim as second nature. Luckily, All or Nothin' makes good on its promise, thanks to a fistful of honest but tough-knuckled songs, a fearsome batch of musicians highlighted by guitar dynamo Kenny Vaughan and an unlikely but quite proven Nash-Vegan as producer: Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
Of course, the first thing that grabs you is the singing — the product of a slight, imperfect, boozy voice that never oversells its sense of authority or defiance. On Good Man, it appears with a withdrawn drawl, a la Lucinda Williams. Then you take note of the accompanying music, a big-beat girl group charge reminiscent of The Ronettes but spiked with ominous guitar twang and tremolo. Finally, the lyrics kick in — namely, a weary domestic reflection that hits the bull's-eye of a dovetailing, disrespectful romance ("The simplest thing that would make my heart ring... well, you don't even think to do it").
That's actually one of the gentler reveries of All or Nothin', although the song neatly summarizes the strengths in Lane's music. Traditional references surface, however, once the dust of Lane's songs settle.
Man Up, for example, has the kinds of clever melodic hooks and narrative assertion that would do '70s-era Loretta Lynn proud, while Want My Heart Back masks its profound sense of abandonment with the sort of orchestral pop backdrop that recalls the '60s records of Dusty Springfield
Auerbach gets his kicks in, too. I Don't Care marches along at such an urgent, punctuated clip that it could have been a bonus tune on The Black Keys' new album, Turn Blue. Then on Love's on Fire, Lane and Auerbach team for a restless duet that begins as an acoustic dirge before kicking into a country campfire sing-along.
In the end, Lane is nobody's fool. Throughout All or Nothin' she summons a straight-talking sense of undiluted country sentiment that is best served when she calls a lover's bluff during Wild One. "If you've got such a great ambition," she sings, "then, honey, why are you still hanging around?'
You can almost see her reaching for the bat again as she sings, too.