Lucero - Women & Work
ATO Records, 2012
Since they got together in 1998, Memphis-based rock band Lucero have made seven full-length records, ranging from dirty, southern-tinged punk to roots rock 'n' roll, gathering alt-country influences along the way, and even layering their sound with soulful horns on 2009's 1372 Overton Park. Many fans dubbed that record as Lucero's magnum opus, and while their latest, "Women & Work," is a step back, it remains an alluring collection of raucous, bar-band rock 'n' roll that arrives just in time for the spring and summer seasons that it was so clearly meant to soundtrack. And while being the world's greatest bar-band (a title they've been fighting over with The Hold Steady for ages) is a rather dubious honor, it's clear from the album cover (which depicts the sextet sitting on a street corner outside of a bar), that it's exactly what Lucero is shooting for here. Look no further than the all-out-party that is the record's title track, which juxtaposes the aforementioned horn section, some terrific guitar playing, and a crashing piano into one of the most well executed rock 'n' roll rave-ups I've heard all year. "On My Way Downtown" is no less impressive, for all the same reasons, while "It May Be Too Late" utilizes the piano to an even greater effect, creating a song that would have sounded as good ten or twenty years ago as it does now. Indeed, Lucero find most of their inspiration for Women & Work by looking back in time, drawing from their Memphis-soul heritage, as well as from the bar-band honky-tonk of classic records like Bruce Springsteen's The River. Take the bluesy "Juniper," whose chorus sounds reminiscent of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" for a split second, before frontman Ben Nichols launches into a killer bridge section, or "Like Lightning," where the band burns through a pre-ordained showstopper.
Not enough can be said of the high benchmark the band sets here (and regularly breaks) in terms of pure musicianship or versatility. Nichols has the kind of rough, weather-worn voice that you can just hear ringing through some hazy, 98-degree bar on a summer night, while John Stubblefield (bass) and Brian Venable (guitar) add classic, atmospheric flourishes to the sound that would be all too easy to miss if you weren't paying close attention. Frequently, a perfectly nostalgic B3-organ slices through the arrangements (or takes the lead, as in "Who You Waiting On?"), instantaneously transporting me back to some of my favorite records from my youth (The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse and Counting Crows' August and Everything After both come to mind), adding a certain timeless, folky quality to every song it graces. That same timeless quality is palpable in the contributions of the horn section, which suits the band's sound as perfectly here as it did on Overton Park. However, it's the keyboards that take Women & Work to the next level, injecting the songs with that extra ingredient that I've always missed in records from the likes of The Gaslight Anthem, or on the last Hold Steady album (following the departure of piano virtuoso Franz Nicolay). The horns and the lurching piano lead the way throughout the record, allowing the band to play with the spontaneity and freedom of the seasoned live outfit that they clearly are.
Women & Work has one minor stumble, in the form of "I Can't Stand To Leave You," a song where the melody works and the band delivers (as usual), but which just doesn't quite go anywhere. Nichols sings in clichés, with a tired and dull vocal performance that makes them even less convincing, a shame, since it derails a fairly stellar full-band arrangement. Luckily, on the remaining occasions where the band sees fit to slow down the tempo, the resulting songs are dynamite. First is the wistful sweep of "When I Was Young," whose elegiac texture and chillingly distant steel guitar sounds make it a candidate for "best song" on the record (and one of my favorites of the year so far), while closer "Go Easy" brings a gospel choir into the studio to back Nichols up. The pairing is a strikingly natural inclusion within the band's southern-rock sound, and the call-and-response nature of the song legitimately sounds like it's inspiring Nichols to amp up his delivery. These two songs are the cornerstones of a killer quintet that carries the album out on a celebratory high note, and the other two are nearly as good. The rootsy "Sometimes" sees the band channeling their country influences, while the almost ragtime-influenced piano intro to "Like Lightning" quickly gets swallowed up by a bass crunch and explodes into a windows-down, fist-pumping guitar solo. The song unfolds into one of the album's best, most rollicking moments, accented by big horn hits, and featuring a committed vocal performance from Nichols that is sure to land the song on plenty of summer mixtapes. It also epitomizes everything Lucero does well on Women & Work, showcasing both their stellar musicianship and their ability to create music that is at once both fresh and timeless. So while Lucero might not be aiming terribly high with this record's bar-band anthems, and while it is unlikely to ever be considered their best effort, Women & Work is an addicting and nostalgic album that I can't wait to blast in my car, at maximum volume, all summer long.