Lucero goes for relaxed sound on latest album
It’s often said it’s a sign that a musician is maturing is when performances start to be as much about what the musician doesn’t play as the amount of notes he plays.
Applying that logic to a band suggests that Lucero is reaching a new level of growth and maturity as a band with its current album, “All a Man Should Do.”
After making two boisterous, horn-infused albums (“1372 Overton Park” and “Women & Work”) on which the band integrated a good bit of the soul music influence of its home town of Memphis into its rootsy rock sound, the latest album finds Lucero in a more relaxed, slightly more spare mode.
“We were seeing how big and how loud we could get, and how many members we could add to the band,” singer/guitarist Ben Nichols said in a recent phone interview. “And now, after going through that process, we’re like all right, we’ve seen what we can do. Now, what is it that we should do?”
What felt right to Nichols and his bandmates was to pull back a bit on the tempos and go for a bit more relaxed sound. This shift, though, proved a bit challenging.
“We actually had to make a very conscious effort to get to that place where like everything was played with a lighter touch or maybe a softer approach,” he said. “We made a conscious decision to kind of take a step back and really focus on playing together and playing what’s appropriate for the song instead of everybody just turning it up to 10 and going for it. There was a little more nuance to this one. And that didn’t come naturally to us. We had to kind of really focus on it, but I think it paid off. You do end up with a more settled -- I’ve heard some folks use the word mature -- sound. And I’m fine with that.”
Grit and grace
What hasn’t changed is the quality of the songwriting in Lucero. Songs from “All a Man Should Do,” such as “Baby Don’t You Want Me” and “Throwback No. 2” retain the grit that has always been part of the Lucero sound, but they feature some of the group’s most graceful melodies to go with their easy-going tempos. There are also a few rockers that would fit on either “1372 Overton Park” or “Women & Work” (“Can’t You Hear The Howl” and “Young Outlaws”) and a couple of ballads that add a delicate touch to their sturdy backbone (“The Man I Was” and “I Woke Up in New Orleans”).
Ironically, the more laid back, somewhat more spare sound of “All a Man Should Do” is drawing comparisons to early Lucero albums like the 2001 self-titled release and 2002’s “Tennessee.” Nichols said he can see those similarities, although he feels the new album also shows the musical growth of the band.
Nichols said he understands the comparisons, and agrees that “All a Man Should Do” has similarities to the band’s earliest music, which had more of country edge and mixed in a good deal of acoustic texture. The difference now is that sparseness was intentional.
“With this record, I guess something that’s new is that we went looking for those empty spaces. We were looking for those notes not to play,” Nichols said. “When the band started we had no clue what we were doing. And we’re still figuring it out, but we’ve learned a few things. So, this was a conscious decision, a conscious attempt, to use some of what we’ve learned. There’s definitely a little more space on this record and yeah, everything kind of sits very nicely within that space.”
The early albums helped Lucero (which includes Nichols, Brian Venable (guitar), John C. Stubblefield (bass) and Roy Berry (drums) establish itself on the national scene. But Nichols said the heavy touring the group did in its early years took a toll. In fact, it was only when Lucero started to expand its sound -- and its lineup, first with keyboardist Rick Steff joining ahead of the 2006 album, “Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers,” and then by adding horns on “1372 Overton Park” -- that the group began to get a second wind.
“Before Rick joined the band, yeah, we were kind of running ourselves into the ground,” Nichols said. “I really honestly believe if Rick hadn’t joined the band, we probably would have fizzled out around that time. But Rick really was a shot in the arm. Just his musicality and his professionalism, and just what he brought to the band opened up a whole new world of possibilities and made songwriting exciting again.
“And then it was kind of the same way with the horn section,” said the singer. “You write a song at night and then you see what horn arrangements they come up with and oh, it just blows your mind and it’s the funnest thing on the planet. And so yeah, it definitely, adding new members, it definitely saved the band and revitalized us, for sure.”