Monday, October 02, 2006

Lucero: What Else Would You Have Them Be?

Last week marked the latest chapter in one of rock's longest ongoing underdog tales:

Lucero released a new album.

From 2000's self-entitled debut to Rebels, Rogues and Sworn Brothers, their latest effort, Lucero has always been the type of band that's easy to root for: they tour incessantly, go out of their way for their fans, never cut corners in terms of promotion or production, and approach their recording career with an integrity and self-sufficiency that is, in short, antiquated. Five albums, one official bootleg, two documentaries, and literally hundreds of shows later, Lucero finds itself buoyed by the optimism of a rabid--and rapidly growing--fanbase. The success of 2005's Nobody's Darlings rendered that very moniker obsolete; a band that cornered the market on songs about disappointment, lowered expectations, self-destructive tendencies and (in short) masterful fuckup-ery ran the risk of rampant success. Turns out people--and record labels, and distributors, and satellite radio stations--relate to great songs about failure. The losers were dangerously close to becoming winners.

Skip ahead a year, and you'll find me digitally downloading their latest effort, Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers, with the type of nervous anticipation usually reserved for bridesmaids on speed. I know how well artists--especially talented, successful, Memphis-based artists--typically deal with expectations. There's a culture of self-sustained limitation that pervades that city's artistic landscape. Success meant Elvis, Sun Studios, Stax Records, Ardent, Big Star. Elvis became a Shakespearean self-parody before his tragic, early death. Sun went into bankrupcy. So did Stax. Big Star burned out and exploded after two seminal, classic albums. So, widespread success is understandably viewed with plenty of skepticism. We've read this story, and we know how it ends. And, keeping this in mind, I approach every new Lucero and Cory Branan release with the cockeyed hope that these guys continue to plow ahead fearlessly towards greatness, residual successes be damned.

Two months and a hundred listens later, I know maybe only two things about Rebels, Rogues and Sworn Brothers. It is a fearless album, and it is a great album.

Much has been made already about this album's new arrangements; Lucero brought in one of Memphis's finest key-men to accompany the songs with absolutely brilliant piano, organ, and accordian work. The effect, when coupled with the wider lyrical and thematic scope of the album, is and an unavoidably "big sounding" record. Highway 61 big. Born to Run big. In a way, Rebels combines the broad and anthemic scope of That Much Further West with the vibrance and sheer sonic power of Nobody's Darlings.

Of course, this is only the collective impression of twelve remarkable songs. Old fans will have plenty to love here, as "1979" and "On the Way Back Home" are quintessential Lucero, right down to the "Night's Like These/Slow Dancing/Fistful of Tears/Nobody's Darlings" style melodic picking and wistful lyricism. "Sing Me No Hymns" and "The Weight of Guilt" are angry rockers in the familiar vein of "Hate and Jealousy," though more carefully composed, multi-dimensional, and musical. Ben's voice, of course, is as hoarse and expressive and precise as ever, and Roy Berry re-establishes himself as one of rock's greatest working drummers ("I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight," "San Francisco," "The Weight of Guilt," "On the Way Back Home"). His drumming is often the source of a song's multi-dimensionality, as rhythmic changes in "What Else Would You Have Me Be" and "On the Way Back Home" suggest an alternate emotional core to the song, much the way "Sixteen's" outtro took the song in a new direction.

What interests me more, however, are the songs in which Ben Nichols refrained from writing "Lucero songs" and instead used his talents to synthesize his most disparate influences and create something new. "I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight" is, by Nichols' admission, his own take on a Springsteen song, and is better for it. The result is a definitive Lucero lyric about fear, love, confusion, anxiety, and hope. The song itself might showcase the best moments of each band member, from the expert key work, to Venable's melodic solo, to Berry's feverish transitions--every moment of the song is packed with a type of immediacy and vibrance we don't often see from any band. "San Francisco" is an absolute gem, and does not lack for Counting Crows influence (from subject matter to the accordion flourishes to the Duritzesque "come ons" in the refrain). "The Mountain" is, in short, the greatest song the Drive By Truckers ever wrote. "I Don't Wanna Be the One" and "She's Just That Kind of Girl" revisit Lucero's punk forefathers with a pop freshness that make them exceedingly listenable. "She Wakes When She Dreams" is a remarkable closing track, and even more valuable for its musical references to Cory Branan. The cadences following each chorus (played by the keys and accordion) recall the melody of "Love Song 11," while the song's lyrical conceit ("She wakes when she dreams/sleeps when she wakes") echo the refrain of Branan's "Sweet Janine" ("Is this just a dream/or am I waking?").

Perhaps the album's definitive track, however, is its opener, "What Else Would You Have Me Be." Neither familiar nor fresh, it occupies a musical middleground for Lucero--this is a song by Lucero that sounds at once distinctly like Lucero and unlike any other song by Lucero before it. What's more, I have a theory that this song is, at least tangentially, about Lucero and their own catalogue of songs. It is self-referential and meta-musical in a way Lucero fans will recognize. When Ben sings in the second verse (through the audible tongue in his cheek), "I'll take you out tonight/buy you cigarettes and whiskey drinks/we'll end up in some fight/ain't that the way good love's gotta be," we know that he's stereotyping his own songs in a moment of poignant self-parody. For just a moment, he's laughing at himself--and we're in on the joke. Just as quickly, we're back to the simple truths of the refrain, "You used to love me/running wild and sleeping with the thieves/come on baby, what else would you have me be?"

And that's why "What else would you have me be" isn't a good question; it's THE question. With a band like Lucero, with their tribulations and detours, their failures and curses and underdog grit and loser philosophies, their self-proclaimed predestination as nobody's favorite, nobody's darling, nobody's god or icon or hero or antihero, nobody's Elvis, maybe years of "wrongs" can add up to one undeniable right. Maybe the years of packed houses and tens of thousands of CD sales and critical acclaim and prolific songwriting finally wore them all down, backed them into a corner, beat them funny and made success not only a fact but a welcome one. Maybe they realized all those years of "fucking up" were well-spent after all. They've done it their way, and they've done it well. Despite themselves.

Lucero has always been easy to root for. They started seven years ago, nascent musicians and novice songwriters, playing muddled acoustic country at punk rock venues, booking more shows, spreading the word, taking it one day (and never more) at a time, cutting records, rehearsing, promoting, booking, touring, recording, rehearsing, touring, recording, rehearsing, years, one day at a time. Somewhere along the line, they became a great band.

Just don't tell them that.

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