That old time rock amp; roll

by Beacon Staff • September 20, 2006

It's a kind of mating game for Lester Bangs disciples.

"Did you catch that new band at the Middle East last week? They sound like a cross between early Wu-Tang stuff and 1980s Dylan, with just a touch of pre-rehab Billy Joel.,If there is one thing rock critics love to do, it's describe artists as a cross between different genres or other bands.

It's a kind of mating game for Lester Bangs disciples.

"Did you catch that new band at the Middle East last week? They sound like a cross between early Wu-Tang stuff and 1980s Dylan, with just a touch of pre-rehab Billy Joel."

The conventional description of Memphis-based quartet Lucero is that the band is "alternative country punk." Virtually everything written about them will stress some variation on those three genres.

If a band that sounds like a mix of Pearl Jam, Hank Williams and the Sex Pistols sounds musically impossible, that's because it is. On Lucero's newest album, Rebels, Rogues and Sworn Brothers, the group proves that it is one thing first and foremost: an almost unbelievably good rock-and-roll band.

The band is labeled partially punk because it is loud and its singer cannot really sing. It is pinned as country because its members write songs about whisky, cigarettes and women (often employing the phrase "sweet darling").

Yet from the opening track, "What Else Would You Have Me Be," it is clear that Lucero is only interested in writing songs that simply rock.

The song begins with a slow succession of distorted guitar chords and a sprinkling of piano. Ben Nichols' scratchy, weathered voice comes in just before the drums: "Gave you everything I stole/And you stole your heart away from me."

This is about as lyrically complex as Lucero gets. Songs about broken hearts make up approximately 100 percent of the album's content.

Midway through, the song changes gears into a head-banging, stop-start guitar riff that should serve as a reminder that we are not in honky-tonk country with this album.

The song should remind critics why Lucero is so refreshing. The band's musical attitude is reminiscent of the early years of hard rock, when artists were not being so heavily analyzed in terms of what genres they were breaking down.

The music exists for the right reasons, without all the irony that comes too often with today's popular music. The constantly touring Lucero prefers to create songs that will sound good live. It is perhaps a modest goal, but the group succeeds at it unconditionally.

"I Don't Want To Be the One" is reminiscent of the best of The Replacements - fast, passionate garage rock. The two bands have a lot in common musically, especially in their vocalists.

Nichols sounds a lot like Replacements front man Paul Westerberg.

Nichols does not so much sing as soulfully scream, almost as if he does not have a microphone and is struggling to be heard.

His strained vocals, though sometimes unintelligible, give an authentic feel to the words. One can really believe that he has just had his heart broken and lives on a steady diet of Marlboros and Johnny Walker.

Rebels' final track, a pretty piano ballad called "She Wakes When She Dreams," is a welcome change of pace for the band, showing that, while refreshingly humble, Lucero is not averse to expanding its musical horizons.

Anyone going to a Lucero show expecting country will suffer a fate similar to Steve Buscemi's character in Ghost World, when he is taken to a blues club and is disgusted to find music more akin to Nickelback than Robert Johnson.

However, those who buy this album expecting nothing more than guitar rock the way it is supposed to be played-loud, messy and with feeling-will not be disappointed.

That may not be enough for popular music deconstructionists, but for the fans, those in the crowd night after night, screaming along, you can bet it is.