Lucero has never really been a country band, and their latest record Where You Found Me perhaps travels farther afield from their alt-country-Southern-rock-punk-Americana past than ever before. But you’d still be hard pressed to run into a songwriter worth their salt that doesn’t cite this Memphis band’s frontman Ben Nichols as an influence of some sort, primary or secondary. And the release of a new album still sends reverberations throughout the roots world, so much so that a fairly dedicated country music site feels compelled to remark on it.
Like many wildly-influential outfits, one of the ways they maintain this status is by never staying the same. As the emulators rise up within their wake, it becomes a requisite for them to morph and search for muses in different corners not just unfamilar to themselves, but to everyone else. Sameness is what will hasten their expiration date, not a lack of new hits. Any “hits” Lucero may have had in the past were more by mistake anyway. This is not a hit band. They are like the Radiohead of Southern music. They lead the way.
Songwriting is always what underpinned the Lucero appeal, and it still does for the most part. But age and circumstances mean the sheer desperation and hunger that lends to some of the most devastating and insightful songs of a nascent career may not always be there in subsequent decades, at least as in ample measures as they are in leaner times when you’re out to make your name. So it takes a bit more style, composition, and imagination to keep things fresh and inspired in the later stages of a career, for both the creators and the audience.
It is under these circumstances you find the very ambient and immersive experience that When You Found Me is cast in. Cinematic in scope and approach, you feel like you’re pixelated into the very frames of a dark, graphic novel rendered in anime—one where daybreak never comes, and the resolution isn’t some epiphanous moment of light and love, but simply a moment of rest from the endless struggle. Dystopian, but strangely familiar and nostalgic, and comforting.
Dark colors are what Lucero use to shade in the details, while old school synths set ambient moods beneath the guitar, bass, and drum approach. That doesn’t mean that unclothed, some of these tracks aren’t sketches of country songs, specifically “Coffin Nails” and “Back In Ohio.” But this particular effort is more about doleful, atmospheric mournfulness and longing that the dedicated songcraft of specific songs.
Strangely though, some of the writing takes a thankful, and hopeful perspective, especially at the end. The loose sketch of a story of loss or abandonment is presented throughout the record, but ends with being found. Admitting that he’s in a happy place with his wife and daughter Izzy, perhaps Ben Nichols had to work in dark, muted colors, or risk making a record of “Zip-a-Dee-Dooh-Dah.” The ending title track reminds one of the late 80’s hit “Under The Milky Way” by The Church, but turns out to be the warm place the rest of the album yearns for. It’s a song Ben Nichols sings to daughter Izzy as a lullaby.
In no way complacent, predictable, or formulaic, Lucero turns in a visionary and inventive effort, even if you have to be in the right mood or receptive to this approach for the spell to work on you. If you’re a country fan and a country fan only, you may not even want to bother. But those that bought into the ethos of Lucero long ago might find their next favorite record from the band. Still, the fey nature of When You Found Me presents the album’s biggest challenge, and one that it’s not the audience’s fault if they can’t find favor with.
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