Nikki Lane, Leslie Tom, Amy Stroup, Ani-DiFranco: Let the Women Sing Out

This review roundup features four female vocalists not afraid to explore their artistic borders. 

If you like sassy women airing it out in front of a kick-ass band, you can't find many better than Nikki Lane. One of the cooler things about Lane is that she doesn't possess a naturally big voice. She could have easily opted for the whispery breathless little girl sounds that are so in vogue these days. Instead she boldly cuts loose, as if she were a mash of Loretta Lynn, Tom Petty, and Wanda Jackson. Her latest record is titled Highway Queen. The title track is a compelling mix of outlaw country, badass rock, muscular singing, and soul-stirring electric guitar. This is a continuation of a formula she developed on her previous release All or Nothin' (New West Records) that was released in 2014 and is one my favorite outlaw country/Americana records. It featured full-tilt energy, style hopping, and attitude galore. Check out the sexy organ and Lane's bump-and-grind vocals on the title track of that one. Or maybe you'd prefer her girl-group-meets-The Bangles "I Don't Care," the surf guitar of "Seein' Double," the honky-tonk defiance of "Man Up," or the spontaneous living room feel of the first section of "Love's on Fire." Want to dance with anger? Check out "Sleep with a Stranger."  I've not yet heard all of Highway Queen, but rate All or Nothin' ★★★★ ½

Leslie Tom uses the hashtag "UnapologeticallyCountry" and that sums her to a tee. Her recent EP Leslie Tom (Coastal Records) is a throwback to when female country music was really big voices singing about love, heartaches, and family. There are several honky-tonk selections that immediately put one in mind of Patsy Cline, including a cover of one of Cline's signature songs, "Leavin' On My Mind." Tom does it as if it were a country/café torch song. Hers is indeed a big voice and she's not afraid to air it. What I really liked was that Tom steers clear of processed sheen. She even gets a little bit corny on "Hank You VeryMuch," a tribute in which she skillfully interweaves Hank Williams song titles. And if you want to wallow in a roadhouse weepie, check out "Breakin' My Own Heart," a twangy 1950's throwback featuring country legends Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano and Lloyd Green on pedal steel. Later, there's a love song duet with Kevin Moon; a patriotic tribute to her grandfather, a World War II vet; and; and a tongue-in-cheek reflection on motherhood, "Hardest Thing I'll Ever Do." You don't get much more unapologetically country than a line like: "You're a Goldilocks with your daddy's eyes/You're a ketchup smile with greasy French fries."  ★★★★

Amy Stroup has enjoyed commercial success—literally; some of her work has made its way into advertisements, as well as movies and TV shows such as "Pretty Little Liars." She's based in Nashville, also fronts the indie band Sugar and the Hi-Lows, and some have called her an alt.country performer. Hmmm… Based on Tunnel, I'd say she's stretched that label to the breaking point. Picture Enya with a younger-sounding voice and more ventures into the pop realm. Mix with the dance hall pulsing tones and loops of someone like Ariana Grande or Debbie Gibson, and send all the vocals through an echo chamber. That's what Tunnel is like. "Dark Runs Out" is very Enyaesque with its soupy electronics and swooshing swells; and the vocals in "We Finally Found Out" literally linger in the background of an electro-keyboard drone that slide in with choral backup singers. We catch that similar quality of a song (not quite) breaking through from the mist in "Curious Heart." Don't hold out for a lot of lyrical insight from this album, as most of the arrangements are too hazy, thick, and echoey for us to ponder poetry. The closest Stroup gets to straight-on songs come in the piano/guitar/snare opening of "Hold What you Can" or the pop vibes of "Far From yesterday," but both of these also get an aural bath at some point. The most surprisingly track is "Falling," with its surf guitar and late 1950s feel. It's hard to argue with Stroup's success, though I'm less willing to call Tunnel any sort of artistic triumph. It has its moments, but overall it feels over-produced and under-realized. ★★

When you put yourself on he griddle as often as Ani DiFranco does, you better be able to take the heat. She shocked LGBT fans when she married a man and had two kids. She pissed off hipsters when she did some projects with trad folkies, and took grief from self-styled revolutionaries for going to a songwriters' retreat at a luxury resort that was once a slave plantation. Has Ani sold out? Hell no! Her Play God EP lays to rest that silly notion by reprising some of her rebellious favorites. The title track—included as both a studio and a live take—is a soul- and funk-influenced no-holds-barred defense of reproductive freedom: My right to choose/You don't get to play God, man/I do…. "Subdivision" is an in-your-face smack-down of white privilege: White people are so scared of black people/They bulldoze out to the country/And put up houses on little loop-de-loop streets/And while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest/The Berlin Wall runs down Main Street. The only heat DiFranco deserves is that her songs are sometimes so political that her famed staccato guitar style and changing rhythms are necessary to cover lyrics that don't scan well. DiFranco's voice has matured to something akin to a huskier version of Melissa Ferrick and this EP is less folky and more soulful. Don't like that? DiFranco's "All This" is her refuse-to-compromise rejoinder. ★★★ ½

Rob Weir

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