Women & Work is a love letter from Lucero to its hometown, Memphis, Tennessee. "Having a band in Memphis puts you in a tradition," says Lucero frontman Ben Nichols. "We started at punk rock shows, not necessarily playing punk rock, but coming from the outside, from a bohemian place."
The bohemian tradition is just as strong in Memphis as the city's series of international hits. The popularity of Sun, Stax, Elvis, and Al Green doesn't diminish the influence of the blues, Jim Dickinson, and Alex Chilton. The bridge between the shadows and the spotlight has become the heart of Lucero: Unafraid to mix pop with their anti-pop, they always charge into new territory.
As punks, Lucero were masters of restraint, with country music beer stains dribbled down the front of their shirts. As whiskey-soaked bohemians, they didn't shy from sweeping Americana tableaus. And then they added an accordion. "When we started, we were building on a foundation we weren't aware of," says guitarist Brian Venable. "Listening back to our early stuff, we hear ourselves reference the old Sun Records. We didn't hear it or feel it then, but we hear it and feel it now."
Women & Work, their 8th album, is such an exciting presentation of the band's eclectic explorations that it makes their 14-year meandering path appear to be a straight line to this very record. "We're more comfortable in our own skin as a band, more comfortable acknowledging regional influences," says bassist John Stubblefield. "We wound up making a Memphis country soul record."
Integrating horns, pedal steel guitar, all manner of keyboards, and even a full-on gospel chorus, Women & Work is a fully realized musical extravaganza. Drawing inspiration from Delaney & Bonnie's obscure first album, Home, on the Stax label, Lucero's ambivalence about tradition has been replaced by an exuberant embrace. Women & Work is like Arcade Fire baptized in Joe Cocker and Leon Russell's Mad Dogs, then warmed with Don Nix's Alabama State Troopers.
"On My Way Downtown," the album's lead song, tells the story: a reserved guitar riff sets the mood, a couple instruments quietly fall in and Ben adds the first contemplative vocals. The song seems headed firmly into the punk-rock-made-pretty territory of their roots—until the organ sustains a chord, the tempo ratchets up, and Lucero becomes a band that doesn't ask but rather insists that you move your feet. Go ahead hipster—dance!
"Go Easy" is something new for the band: gospel music. A sing-along with a large female chorus, it's more likely to close the bar than open the church, but when returning producer Ted Hutt pushed the band toward a sacred sound, they realized it could cinch the album's country soul feel.
"You work all week, thinking about women and the weekend," says Nichols. "'Downtown' is Friday night, 'Go Easy' is Sunday morning. The rest of the record is the party in between."
Nichols recently moved from stage to screen, playing a lead role in the acclaimed MTV series $5 Cover, directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Footloose). The character was a rambling musician, and Nichols brought authority to the performance. In 2009, he released a solo album, The Last Pale Light In the West, a collection of acoustic songs based loosely on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
But the band remains a solid unit, even as it changes. Lucero began broadening its sound in 2007 when they brought in Rick Steff—man of the keys (piano, organ, and accordion). The following year, they expanded again with the addition of pedal steel whiz Todd Beene, and then again more recently with Memphis's funkiest horn section—Jim Spake and Scott Thompson (Al Green, Cat Power).
Lucero keeps on pushing. For most of the past decade, the band has averaged almost two out of every three nights on the road, steady-building their fan base. Last year, they broadened their audience on a long tour opening for Social Distortion.
Women & Work finds them on a new label, ATO Records (home to the Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket), and the fit is a good one. "The best-kept-secret band is now on the best-kept-secret label," says Venable.
As different as Lucero may sound from their early days, this record also takes them full circle. "When we began," says drummer Roy Berry, "we were known for how restrained we played. Our sound got bigger over the years, but the larger ensemble is making the core band sparse like we used to be—the songs just have more layers."
- Robert Gordon