There are bands that nobody likes and bands that some people like. There are bands that a few people love, and finally, there are bands that inspire album-pre-ordering, bumper-sticker-sporting, stand-up-front-and-scream-all-the-words devotion. Lucero is one of those bands. As with many in that category, the obsession is balanced by a whole lot of people who just don't get it.
Well, I get "it." This Memphis quartet might not be the most virtuosic band or the most inventive, but they write tremendously moving songs. In fact, that band-next-door quality is part of the appeal. From rough-hewn parts (ingredients that are available in nearly every garage or basement across the country) they assemble something singular.
Lucero recently finished recording their eighth studio album — an achievement in itself. "We played our first show in 1998," says frontman Ben Nichols by phone, still recovering from jet lag after a short tour in Australia. "And we've been on the road pretty consistently since 2001. It's been a lot of miles and a lot of years. And it's still the same four original guys. We're still having a good time."
According to Nichols, the upcoming album (to be titled Women and Work) will expand on the horns-organ-pedal steel palette of 2009's 1372 Overton Park. Though some of those elements were new, it still sounded like a Lucero record — a mix of clattering barnburners about being drunk in bars and solemn, late-night dirges about being drunk in bars. That's an oversimplification, but this band's songs do tend to examine a common universe: crowded rock clubs, unattainable ladies, the pain of leaving things behind and the consequent desire to get them back.
Since the new record is incubating, it presents an opportunity to look back at the old stuff, offering a Lucero crib sheet in chronological order. Maybe these individual musical moments will help make sense of the band and their enduring appeal.
"Summer Song" off the self-released proto-album The Attic Tapes perfectly captures seasonal ennui in the stifling Southern heat. There are girls in pretty dresses, "summer bands" that "probably won't last through the fall," and a wonderful, wistful fiddle. Nichols says he still loves playing this one.
The album Tennessee is Lucero at their heartbreak apex. The combo of "Nights Like These" and "I'll Just Fall" is deliciously bleak. On "Nights," Nichols — ever the underdog — sings, "She had a weakness for writers / And I was never that good at the words anyways." (There's a rumor that the line refers to former Nashvillian and Memphian Cory Branan.) The song is also a perfect showcase for guitarist Brian Venable and his angular, instantly recognizable style — those spare, meandering guitar lines are as much a Lucero signature as Nichols' I-spent-the-morning-gargling-nails growl. Meanwhile, on "Fall," a drunk protagonist refuses to get up off the floor. (More fiddles!) It's a simple premise and, perhaps, relatable.
Speaking of those barnburners, there are few songs better at getting a Lucero crowd lathered up than That Much Further West's "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good." Here, the band channels their punk DNA, as Nichols shout-sings about a looming bar fight and drummer Roy Berry pounds out the beat of war. See also: Nobody's Darlings' "Last Night in Town."
Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers contains two of the band's most haunting ballads. They close out the album, perfectly mirroring the way a long, raucous evening eventually winds down. "On the Way Back Home" deals with forks in the road — "you joining the army, I started a band" — and the powerful pull of old friends and nostalgia. It also features one of Venable's most beautiful and effusive solos. Meanwhile, the hushed "She Wakes When She Dreams" radiates delicate, early-morning weariness.
Late-era Lucero has some slightly Springsteen-y moments. When it works it's exhilarating, a cacophony of organ and horns paired with big, anthemic choruses. Standout "What Are You Willing to Lose" off 1372 Overton Park has a swirling energy, and the titular question is just the right kind of rock cliché.
"We're definitely a love-us-or-hate-us type of band," says Nichols when asked about the fealty Lucero inspires. "I'm not sure why that is. I'd like to say it's because what we're doing is honest. And it honestly is coming straight from the heart. And if you think that sounds like bullshit, then I think the whole band will sound like bullshit [laughs]."
So, in the end, maybe that "it" is earnestness. It can feel almost anachronistic, but also redemptive.
My favorite Lucero song didn't earn the prize for the veracity of its lyrics or the strength of its melody. It happened the way these things often happen: In 2007, I attended the Mucklewain Festival in rural Tennessee. It was dark in a way this urbanite barely understands. The only spark in the black was the stage (and the booth selling $2 cans of beer). As the heat of the day dissipated, mist rose off the fields. Lucero launched into "Fistful of Tears," the delicacy of the piano line providing the perfect foil for Nichols' glorious rasp. It was one of those moments when you realize, yup, this band has something.
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