It’s always hard to review the new record by one of your favorite bands. The relationship is too emotionally charged, too wrapped up in their back catalog, their career trajectory, the last show you saw them at. This being my blog, where I would ideally share with you, the reader, great music which I think you should hear, I’m gonna give it my best shot.
If you haven’t heard of Lucero before, they are a band from Memphis, TN that can loosely by nebulously labeled alternative country, although smarter, albeit incomplete, reference points are groups like The Replacements, Uncle Tupelo, and Whiskeytown–groups where twang and folk were just part of a much larger, more rock n’ roll sound. The last couple of records have seen the introduction of keys and accordion player Rick Steff, who has broadened the group’s considerable sonic weight into near-Springsteen terrority, helped along by frontman Ben Nichol’s increasing interest in blue-collar storytelling, Memphis style (hence the increasingly valid comparison to The Hold Steady). Rounding out the line-up are still-original members Brian Venable (lead guitar), John Stubblefield (bass) and Roy Berry (drums)–along with the recently added pedal steel guitarist Tom Bean. They tour (a lot) and drink (a lot).
1372 Overton Park is actually the band’s major label debut, although longtime fans will hardly be disappointed. The biggest change a major label budget made in the band’s sound is the addition of a full horn section on a good majority of these tracks, arranged by fellow Memphis music scene vet Jim Spake. Fortunately, these tastefully augment rather than dominate the songs here. The Band’s Rock of Ages this is not.
The highlight here, as always, is Nichol’s vocals and lyrics. More gravelly voiced than ever, The singer has legions of dedicated, hardcore fans largely because of his ability to write what he knows about, and write about it well. Given that, some of his most memorable songs to date are written in the third person, without the intensely personal sensitivity he is known for (“The War,” “Bikeriders,” “I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight”). This record continues that trend with the opening cut “Smoke” and the standout “Maggie and the Devil.” The former is a dark, anthemic rock song with a huge, thunderous chorus even for a ragged, riff-heavy outfit like Lucero. The lyrics are a cynical response to rock n’ roll cliche. “Maggie,” on the other hand, is loosely based on the “Love and Rockets” comics and is the most horn-heavy track on the album, built on a stuttering rhythm and illustrates the incredibly tight interplay the band has developed over the years, in spite of the copious quantities of alcohol they consume on stage. Both tunes have some serious radio potential, along with the second tune on the record (“What Are You Willing to Lose”) which features a rousing lyric and an almost Kings of Leon-like chorus, minus a fire hazard and plus a little self-respect.
Other highlights include the newest additions to the drunken singalong rocker format that is the group’s bread and butter. “Sound of the City” features some squealing organ and lines like “I wanna take you out to the show/I wanna kiss you while the band plays it’s rock n’ roll” and “Me and my friends we might not look like much/but we got the time and know when to push our luck,” while the Southern rock-heavy “Sixes and Sevens” features Nichols shouting lines like “drinking women chasing whiskey” over Venable’s endless riffage. Other songs in this vein are “Johnny Davis” and “Halfway Wrong,” the latter featuring the memorable line “with another shot, and another song/you and me and all of this is only halfway wrong.”
The record is well balanced between the aforementioned rockers and Lucero’s other forte, the lyrically sensitive heartbreaker ballad. “Can’t Feel a Thing,” “Goodbye Again,” and “Darken My Door” are all amazing tunes, but the highlights in this are are the two closing tracks, the Townes Van Zandt-inspired “Hey Darling Do You Gamble” and the elegiac “Mom.” The latter is gonna have the drunken crowds weeping at the end of the night from the opening verse,
“mama, your boys might make some mistakes
but we know where we’re from
and we know how we were raised
so don’t you think twice about where we are tonight,
no matter how far from home
we’ll be back along, just a matter of time.”
Lucero won’t be crying though–they’ve made their best record just as the seem to be hitting a commercial and critical tipping point. Highly recommended–I know I’m going to be playing it pretty solidly for the next few months…
Lucero – “Mom”