Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Nikki Lane and Sunny Sweeney

Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds

I really enjoyed Nikki Lane’s fourth album Highway Queen, which came out as long ago as 2017 and included fab songs like Jackpot and 700,000 Rednecks that sat neatly in the aisle between Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile, with a little bit of Pistol Annies and Lily Hiatt.

This new album, as most reviews will probably point out, has been produced by Josh Homme, who also worked on Humbug, the underrated third album by Arctic Monkeys. It begins with a bass-driven chugger called First High, with an itchy chorus and a great vocal.

The title track follows the template, with some double-tracked vocals and what sounds like a guiro in the form of a plastic bottle in the mix. Nikki boasts that she can ‘make her own damn denim and diamonds’, an independence echoed on the song Born Tough, a song where the narrator takes advice from her parents and learns ‘to play by my own rules’. That’s rock’n’roll and yet, because it’s Nikki’s life in a song, also country.

There’s some lush pedal steel on Faded, with some low harmonies by Josh, while album closer Chimayo is grounded by an acoustic guitar part and atmospheric production that pushes Nikki’s vocals to the top of the mix.

A lot of the album’s lyrics deal in self-help: Try Harder has a chirpy major-key arrangement to emphasise Nikki’s advice to power through any hardships; Good Enough kicks off the album’s second side with a plea to be patient; and Live/Love notes that ‘you’ve gotta stay true to what you do’.

Pass It Down (‘Change don’t come till you let it out’) is a jubilant country song which will sound tremendous live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York at the start of December. It’s Houston and Austin this week, and Nikki’s rootsy sound will impress the Texan crowds if they know what’s good for them.

Sunny Sweeney – Married Alone

Talking of Texans, Sunny Sweeney returns with her first album in five years on her Aunt Daddy label. In 2011, she had major label support for her album Concrete, a lost gem which featured some A-List writers (Lori McKenna, Brett James, Bob DiPiero) and the big single From A Table Away, which made the Hot 100 but stalled at 10 on country radio (sometimes, as the DJ Gary Davies often says, we just don’t get it right).

Married Alone is co-produced by Paul Cauthen and Beau Bedford, who impressed me on Paul’s album earlier this year. They frame Sunny’s voice with traditional instrumentation, and the themes suit a lady in her forties. ‘You can tie me up but baby you can’t tie me down’ is the introductory chorus to the album on Tie Me Up.

Someday You’ll Call My Name is spikier and more of a hoedown, and How’d I End Up Lonely Again brings the tempo down (‘another wrong turn, another dead end’) to prove Sunny’s versatility. Wasting One On You has the backing harmonies, foregrounded horns and Hammond organ of a Muscle Shoals classic.

The title track is a proper country song (‘Together apart, married alone’ coos Sunny over reverberating guitars) co-written by Reba McEntire’s daughter Autumn and features harmonies from the mighty Vince Gill who plays the part of the husband. Leaving Is My Middle Name is set at a bar and our narrator is a femme fatale: ‘a heartache waiting to happen, a chance you don’t want to take’. Sunny gets inside the character and the arrangement matches the lyric perfectly.

There are other artists co-signing the project: Want You To Miss Me is a Sweeney/Caitlyn Smith write with the hook ‘I don’t want you back, I just want you to miss me’; and the great Kendall Marvel provides Sunny with a torch song called Fool Like Me, which is in the tradition of She’s Got You.

Lori McKenna is the main collaborator on the album, bringing her wisdom to four of the tracks on the album. She and Heather Morgan were in the room for the melancholic Easy As Hello (‘I finally realised enough is enough’), which recalls the mood of From A Table Away and has a gorgeous instrumental coda. Lori also co-wrote A Song Can’t Fix Everything, a superlatively arranged track with an extremely good vocal performance from Sunny; All I Don’t Need, a four-minute movie where the narrator tries to resist falling in love with her fellow traveller; and closing track Still Here.

That track neatly sums up the mission statement of this album: grown-up country music where Sunny ponders affairs of the heart. ‘Some nights the world tries to tell you that you’re alright’ is what she sings, rewarding her steadfastness and fidelity either to her beloved or to life itself. This will comfort so many listeners and Sunny ought to return to the UK in 2023 after launching the album at Millport and The Long Road this year.

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