It’s rare when critics and artists see eye-to-eye, as an external perspective often misses intent and the nuances of creation, and the view from inside is often too close to see the bigger picture. But with Lucero’s Women & Work, the Memphis-based band and its reviewers are seeing the same things from their respective vantage points.
In a phone interview earlier this month promoting his band’s April 3 performance at RIBCO, bassist and founding member John C. Stubblefield said that the new album – released March 13 – is distinct from Lucero’s previous studio records: “Every album before [2009’s] 1372 [Overton Park], we’ve always kind of gone in and reinvented to a certain degree. ... Rather than reinvention on this one, I think it was more realization ... .”
That was echoed by AllMusic.com’s Thom Jurek, who wrote: “It’s as if this sound was always there just waiting for them to mature enough to let it breathe. ... Women & Work is the sound of a ... confident band, fully embracing their hometown’s musical legacy, and wrapping it inside their own sound, making each both larger and deeper.”
Stubblefield said that the album has added a “strong sense of regionalism” to Lucero’s punkish alt-country barroom brawn, most obviously with the soulful horn section that debuted on 1372. That album, he said, was “kind of Lucero with horns on top of it, where it was hinting at this certain thing. On this entire record, now that the horns have been playing with us for a couple years, it’s more integrated and more organic ... .”
And Women & Work also touches on the blues and spiritual traditions of north Mississippi. “It was cool to realize all the different musical styles of the region and pull it off on one record,” Stubblefield said.
(Some have found fault with the album’s love-letter-to-Memphis approach. The A.V. Club thought the band took the homage too far: “It all sounds familiar, and that’s the problem ... : Lucero has never sounded so assured or less distinct.”)
Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Ben Nichols, Lucero since its 2001 self-titled debut has established twin reputations as hard-working road dogs and sterling songsmiths. You can hear both in Nichols’ authoritatively weathered and abused voice, as he infuses the album’s titular themes with both art and experience. (There’s probably something in his genes, too, as he’s the brother of writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose two feature films thus far are grimly rich, daring, and humane. Lucero scored his Shotgun Stories.)
After a brief introduction, “On My Way Downtown” kicks off Women & Work with a bright boogie, and the title track continues the party vibe.
The tempo slows and the mood darkens on “It May Be Too Late” – “Now I could get better / Or I could get drunk / Two doubles for the road / Reckon I’m done” –but Nichols infuses the words with an undeniable rhythm that buoys it.
On “I Can’t Stand to Leave You,” he sings with a downbeat resignation that’s leavened by a certain hopeful sureness, and the latter is matched by every instrument – the rhythm section, the female backing vocals, the keys, and the horns. The band expertly draws from opposing feelings and somehow makes that feel natural rather than ambivalent.
The album, Stubblefield said, was developed over two months, and he said the process involved “exploring every idea and every riff. ... A couple of songs, the bridges became whole other songs. Kind of our most collaborative effort.”
The productive labor is evident on Women & Work, which often creates resolution where there should be loose ends and tension. As Paste wrote, it’s ultimately “a mixture of a retrospective eye and [the] solace of the future.”
Lucero will perform on Tuesday, April 3, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The 8 p.m. all-ages show also features William Elliott Whitmore. Tickets (RIBCO.com) are $16 in advance and $20 the day of the show.
For more information on Lucero, visit LuceroMusic.com.