We’ve all got those bands. Bands that not only have a way of writing songs that strike us right in our respective emotional cores, but have a fundamental way in altering how we listen to music. Hell, if you’ve been actively listening to music long enough (and let’s be honest, if you’re reading a story about a band like Lucero on a site like Dying Scene, you’re probably an active music listener), you’ve undoubtedly got a metric ton of those bands. The band that first made you fall for punk rock. The band that first broke you from your childhood love of manufactured pop music. The band whose style you copied and adopted as your own. The band that wrote songs that made you realize that music could be intense and personal and still make you laugh your ass off. The band that first got you to care about politics/social causes or made you break out the thesaurus/dictionary/Google search bar. The band that first wrote songs that made you understand…like, really understand…pain and loss and heartache.
Which brings us to Lucero. The genre-bending Memphis band just rounded the corner on fifteen years since the launch of their self-titled debut full-length. Released May 22, 2001 (MadJack Records), Lucero marked the result of three years of cutting their collective teeth as songwriters and, perhaps most notably, one of the hardest-drinking, hardest-working bands in the game. The album dropped with relatively little fanfare, at least by today’s standards; looking back, there was never really a clear moment when the band burst on the national stage or took the scene by comparative storm. What the album’s release did do, however, was put an official time and date stamp on the beginning of what would become a slow build of a career rooted in earnestness and authenticity that would find them a home in myriad genres. Or, perhaps more accurately, eschewing labels and creating their very own genre.
To honor the occasion, Dying Scene decided to revisit Lucero’s self-titled debut album. From there, the project took off, thus the reason this particular installment is labelled “Part I.” You see, over the course of the last decade-and-a-half, Lucero the band has taken on a level of importance that long since eclipsed the relative importance of Lucero, the album. So what happened as this story developed was a shift in ideas, from a story celebrating Lucero as an album, to a story celebrating Lucero as a band and all of the things that that entails; their continually evolving sound, their devoutly loyal fanbase, their rightful place at the flash point of some rather sizable changes in the punk rock landscape. To do Lucero justice, it’s certainly not enough to hear the long-winded ravings of a Dying Scene editor and Lucero fanboy (don’t you worry, though, there will still be plenty of that in the space below). Throughout the process, however, we called on some singer/songwriter friends to have them chime in on what sets Lucero, the band and the album, apart from the rest of the field. So grab a whiskey and head below to view our revisit of Lucero (with a little help from Dave Hause and Sal Medrano), and stay tuned later in the week for a longer, entertaining piece on the band at large!
Revisiting an album that you’ve heard countless times over the years and subsequently trying to put said album in proper context can be a bit of an arduous task. It’s made even more of a fool’s errand when the band that produced the album you’re revisiting has grown up a lot in the years since, putting out better and more complex efforts with each new release. Still, when viewed though the appropriate lens, there’s a lot that you can learn about future sounds and future directions if you pay enough attention. With that as our guide, let’s peer into Lucero’s self-titled debut album, released fifteen years ago this week on MadJack Records.
Lucero begins in a seemingly rather inauspicious manner. As standalone song on paper, “Little Silver Heart” is good if not necessarily noteworthy. Kicked off by a bit of an uptempo drum beat, the four-ish minute track quickly settles into a groove pretty quickly, revolving around a bit of a jangly guitar hook and what we’d soon learn would become frontman Ben Nichols’ trademark whiskey-infused drawl. Yet in some ways, “Little Silver Heart” is a perfect track to introduce Lucero to the wider-scale masses, as in sound and lyrical content it encapsulates the bulk of the band’s early feel in a way that some other songs don’t. There’s no big introduction, there’s no overproduced vocals or two-minute over-the-top dueling guitar solo. There is, however, a rough-around-the-edges familiarity to the song, particularly in the way the guitars (Nichols and Brian Venable, whom according to what may or may not be urban legend only learned to play guitar when Ben taught him the first few songs) meander a little above a backbeat provided by drummer Roy Berry that doesn’t quite seem to provide the steadiest of backbones, adding to the recurring belief that this whole song/album/band could go wildly off the rails at any moment. That familiarity somehow fits the band into a lot of genres while somehow defying them as well. Is it outlaw country? Is it Southern rock? Is it cowboy punk? The answer, unquestionably, is “yes.”
It’s worth taking a brief look at the American musical landscape, circa 2001. Janet Jackson and boy bands and Christina and Britney and nu-metal ruled the popular charts. Take Off Your Pants And Jacket ruled the punk rock landscape of the day, and country music at that point was still mired in what we’d learn would be the beginning stages of a total bubblegum-pop takeover of the genre, totally stripping away any of the authentic outlaw, renegade nature of the genre’s forefathers. So it was into that rather regrettable period of American musical culture that Lucero launched their debut full-length to the masses. As Dave Hause explains (in a lengthy feature piece you’ll see later this week, “in some other ways, it feels like (Lucero have) been around for thirty years. I don’t remember them forming and roaring on to the scene ever, you know? They just were there, and everyone was aware of them and excited to go see them. But it wasn’t like “oh, there’s this new band called Lucero…” at any point.”
It’s in Lucero‘s second track, however, that we get our first real glimpse of some of the elements that start to set Lucero apart as a band. “My Best Girl” is a bit of a low-tempo ballad, a heartache-infused ode to his guitar (or maybe it’s a metaphor to a real girl, depending on when you hear Nichols relay the origin story). By 2016, Nichols has made a career of digging in to loves lost, relaying tales of broken-hearted despair in ways that few have matched before or since. As the emo genre would teach us ad nauseam, tales of broken-hearted despair have a tendency to come across pedestrian, juvenile and saccharine-sweet. Nichols’s lyrical wheelhouse has a tendency to keep things simple, for sure. Yet there’s an honesty and a to-the-point eloquence to the stories he’s telling that is instantly relatable to anybody that’s had a relationship of any depth that outlasted high school. Or, as Rebuilder frontman Sal Medrano explains it (from the same, above-mentioned feature story) : “(I)t’s one of those things where Ben doesn’t write songs to try to be the buzz band or the next best thing. It’s really more like he writes about his experiences, and unfortunately every guy and girl in the world can probably relate to heartbreak like that.”
The dozen songs that follow the opening one-two punch solidify what we know know as the opening salvos of the early Lucero sound. There’s nothing inherently, prototypically “punk rock” present, and yet, in some ways, the sound and the ethos make Lucero one of the quintessential “punk rock” records of the year, or maybe of the decade. On “Drink Til We’re Gone,” we get our first real taste at one of the markets Nichols has had cornered as a songwriter ever since: women and whiskey. There is a sparsity to the music that echos the loneliness that is painfully present in Nichols’ voice. That loneliness is a bit of a cover, however, because by the chorus, the overarching theme is that we’re all in this together.
As we move on throughout Lucero, the sound starts to vary, perhaps setting the stage for the years to come (side note: fun experiment – put on Lucero and 2015’s All A Man Can Do back-t0-back and see if you can determine how, exactly, they came from the same band with the same four core members). “Banks Of The Arkansas” centers around a playful, upbeat guitar riff, and speaks of a love that’s not yet gone wildly off the rails. “Raising Hell” starts as a slow-burn of a song on the album that, when played live, has morphed into full throttle boot-stomper that lives up to its own name. “All Sewn Up” is a roadhouse blues style ode to the bad tattoos that stitch us together, each individual road markers of past decisions and indiscretions.
Just as Lucero begins with a varied-sounding one-two punch, it ends in similar albeit infinitely more heart-wrenching fashion. “No Roses, No More” wouldn’t sound out of place as a deep cut on any number of Seattle bands’ albums from a decade prior, a dark, stomach-punch of a song that very simply and very eloquent walks our protagonist through the Band-Aid-ripping-off that accompanies the end of many a relationship. “It Gets The Worst At Night,” the album’s fourteenth and final song, is built around another sparse, jangly riff and tells the all-too-familiar (to most of us, anyway) story of being, and wanting to be, completely lost due to the heartbreak that accompanies unrequited love.
As stated above, when taken as a standalone album, Lucero is a solid debut release that the vast majority of bands should make a deal with the devil to have in their own respective canons. It’s difficult to call it the band’s best album (I’m sure they wouldn’t) for several reasons, not the least of which is that the songs have all grown and improved to the point of virtual unrecognizability as the core unit of Nichols, Brian Venable, John Stubblefield and Roy Berry have improved categorically in technical playing and songwriting styles, and organ/keyboard/accordion player Rick Steff has arrived to fill out (and class up) the sound. It’s also difficult to pick a “best” or “favorite” Lucero album because the band has changed sounds so many times, frequently creating the phenomenon whereby the first album of the band that you get in to tends to be the one that most sticks to your ribs, taking a special place in your music-loving heart.
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