Album review: Lucero gets deep into Memphis soul with ‘Women & Work’
With their latest studio record, “Women & Work,” the alt-country rockers known as Lucero have managed to harness fully the music of their hometown to make their most Memphis-sounding record yet.
The album, their second consecutive project recorded at Ardent Studios with producer Ted Hutt, presents the musicians at their polished best. In an interview last fall singer Ben Nichols told me that the group had “stumbled” into their last record “1372 Overton Park.” Here, the prior experience the band received recording at the historic studio completes the transition from a country band with punk roots to a rock outfit brimming with soul.
The title track begins with Rick Steff (piano/organ) providing rock ‘n’ roll boogie-woogie piano and some Chuck Berry-style guitar that harkens back to all those songs recorded across town at Sun Studios more than a half century ago. Yet, Nichols’ lyrics bring the song back to a modern punk-rock reality with the line, “The women and the work and the booze in between. Got ya puking in the aisles and smashing TVs.”
Newer styles, not previously found in Lucero’s repertoire, further enhance the quality of these songs. Though filled with elaborate instrumentation and warmth, the band still retains a raw feel. For example, “Juniper” is a bluesy stomp whereas the band goes full-on soul for “Who You Waiting On?” complete with a Booker T.-esque B-3 organ from Steff. Not just content to add horns to the sound with Memphis professionals Jim Spake and Scott Thompson, the outstanding background vocals from “the Ho-Moans” — aka Susan Marshall and Reba Russell — offer further proof that Lucero is comfortable with the Memphis sound.
Nichols’ songwriting continues a theme to incorporate chasing love, pining for lost loves and the ever present references to having some cocktails. Not until the album closer, “Go Easy,” do the lyrics feature a protagonist that has the girl, but even then it’s tenuous as the opening line indicates, “Hold on, darling hold on. A storm is coming on. I’ll keep you safe.” With the background vocals, mournful horns and piano included, this track takes on a deep spiritual quality.
Lucero manages to slip back into their old sound for “I Can’t Stand To Leave You” and “When I Was Young,” songs with picked guitar chords and pedal-steel flourishes that could easily find a home on the band’s previous albums “That Much Farther West” or “Nobody’s Darlings.”
Steff’s boogie-woogie piano returns for “Like Lightning,” the most upbeat track on the album — a sure barn-burner in a live setting. Nichols belts his signature raspy vocals as he sings about chasing after the girl he’s head-over-heels for: “She’s got a kiss like a thunderbolt. Electric lips that shock me to the bone.”
Die hard fans of “1372 Overton Park” may lament the ratio of rockers to weepers, but what the band gave up in fury only earned them depth with a sound that suits their experience level. Like a new tattoo, they now wear the sound of their hometown proudly.