1372 Overton Park
Label: Universal Republic
Ben Nichols is a songwriter obsessed with wrong – the wrong women, the wrong relationships and the wrong cities. His characters aren’t heroes – in fact, his heroes are “the losing kind.” Men may be weak, unwilling or unable to overcome their self-doubt or personal demons. Women age into unflattering versions of their former selves. Winners are flawed, when they can be called winners at all.
Luckily, on Lucero’s major-label debut, the band wraps these tales of wrong in songs that just feel… right. There’s something about Nichols’ fixation on the dark side that is genuinely galvanizing. He digs down to his characters’ core issues, but he paints their situation with such detailed and vivid imagery that they come to life when set to the down-home sound Lucero has cultivated.
The band’s sound has long been described as some combination of punk, country and rock, but on 1372 Overton Park, they flavor this sonic stew with horn arrangements from Memphis’ Jim Spake (who’s also worked with Al Green, Solomon Burke, and Cat Power). This shift is subtle, but evident. Out of the gate, guitarist Brian Venable, drummer Roy Berry and multi-instrumentalist Rick Steff create a dramatic stage for Nichols’ fly-by-night song “Smoke.” By the time John Stubblefield’s bass and Spake’s horns crash up against Nichols’ chorus, the sound is full and lively. Producer Ted Hutt deserves credit for managing what could have easily been an over-reliance on horns and backing soul choirs, instead focusing on the band’s tight performances and songwriting.
And about that songwriting – it’s good. Damn good. Nichols’ characters, dark as they nearly always are, never stand in the way of a good hook or catchy rock riff. The faster songs (“What Are You Willing to Lose,” “Sounds of the City” and “Halfway Wrong”) inspire drunken shout-alongs and the slinky grooves of “Sixes and Sevens” and “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo” will fill bars’ dancefloors with the very characters Nichols finds so endearing. Frankly, the band sounds like they’re having fun, and that’s energizing. Nichols’ offside comments “Play it; let’s go! Hey!” could come off as contrived from many other bands. Here, they sound like the natural side-effect of getting a little too excited in the studio.
The slower material isn’t as show stopping as the anthems, but it gives the band a chance to explore the Memphis soul sound more thoroughly. “Can’t Feel a Thing” is especially moving: “She asked me if I loved her and I showed her the tattoo/ Weren’t no answer, but for then it’d have to do/ It’s alright/ I can’t feel a thing.” Sliding brass emphasizes the loss, but doesn’t offer condolences – the narrator can’t help looking at the other girls when he’s out at the local rock shows.
Imperfections notwithstanding, the characters in Lucero’s songs don’t beg for forgiveness or help. The band knows better – they don’t have to ask for what the audience is willing to give them. People love an underdog, someone with “No chance in hell/ But they lay it on the line.” The imperfections make the characters real, and the band’s musicianship makes them exciting. There’s just so much right with this album focused on wrong.