Rating:The standard country music script goes something like this: I work real hard and when I come home, my woman done me wrong; pass the whiskey. If you can tell that story in a compelling way, you might sell a fair few records. More recently, a script has developed wherein former punks soften in their old age and they produce a country album. The arc makes sense: both genres are rooted in storytelling as therapy and both demand passionate though not necessarily technically proficient performances. On Women & Work, the evolving punks of Lucero plunge into the roots of their hometown of Memphis. Honky-tonk, gospel and the blues weave between Ben Nichols’ barrel-aged, whiskey-soaked voice. The shift is made with confidence, if not the youthful enthusiasm of nine albums ago.
When Lucero transition from the acoustic “Downtown (Intro)” to electric “On My Way Downtown,” the shift is boisterous and bold. Horns bleat and guitars spring nimbly through lyrics about seducing an old flame in a fun and noncommittal way. Title track “Women & Work” winks at the standard country script, shrugging off the usual work and woman troubles with “It’ll hurt in the morning but you still need ‘em bothf” and recommending alcoholism as a solution. The frantic pace and judicious use of horns succeed where later tracks do not.
After a boisterous opening, the album dips a bit. Attempts at sentimentality are a little embarrassing; rather than playing with clichés, Lucero thoroughly ascribe to them. The muddled and trite “It May Be Too Late” trades in junior high romantic troubleshooting, specifically the save-me-by-saving-you and just-give-me-a-sign methods popular among teens who have never been on actual dates. “Who You Waiting On?” projects the narrator’s loneliness onto a woman who dares go to a bar alone. Though she’s been drinking Jack and Coke and does not seem to have spoken to him all night, he—also alone and presumably not being stared at all night—still tries to lure her into his car on the flimsy premise that he would be a better boyfriend than whoever he’s pretty sure she was waiting for. That’s not romantic; it’s entitled and creepy.
By “I Can’t Stand To Leave You” Lucero’s sentimentality has worn thin and you’re dying for a drink and a barnburner. The track stumbles along interminably and sounds like a forgettable mid-‘90s alternative ballad before segueing into “When I Was Young,” which at least has a pleasant guitar riff and the bellowable chorus, “I was fierce and wild in love when I was young!” Later tracks run together in a sort of snarling blur until penultimate track “Like Lightning” recaptures the earlier energy. This happens in spite of lyrics heavy on the prepositions like “I’m gonna make my way on back up down the road.” The honky-tonk piano matches the frenzied search for the gal he’s gotta get back and it’s a welcome reprieve from the balladeering. Final track “Go Easy” gets as true-blue Southern as can be, with a gospel choir enhancing a potentially dreary ballad.
Lucero aren’t the first band to play southern-fried rock and roll with a raw-throated lead singer. Though it hasn’t been their idiom in the past, they take to the genre like a pack of good ol’ boys. They just happen to sound better when they’ve had a few drinks and left the troubles with women and work at home.