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The gooey middle

Alt-country, a decade too late, from Lucero



You know that function on some CD players that summarizes a song for you by playing 10 or 15 seconds out of the middle? Well, Lucero’s 2002 Tennessee is the long-playing equivalent. The trajectory of most songs can be accurately guessed at if you can just hear the middle, because the middle is usually the beginning and the ending, too. No wrenching catharsis, no overlong guitar solos here—most of Tennessee comes loping in one ear at a slow 4/4 and out through the other one the same way. It might be stretching things a little to say that the entire album could be summed up by one or two songs in the middle, but not by much. Lucero is by no means a world-class explorer of the—let’s just say alt-country and be done with it—landscape, but they know their own little stretch of country road that time forgot like the back of their collective hand. In fact, they sound like they’ve never taken it past the county line.

Not necessarily a bad thing, that—it can sure be pretty. There are parts of Tennessee pretty enough to make you cry, and a good rule of thumb for listening to alt-country music with a concert in mind is that the plainest songs on the record are often the ones that shine the prettiest live. The plain Janes and mud-fences, the ones that you never really noticed, are usually the ones that suddenly strike you as so pretty, just like girls at a high school reunion. By that measure, Lucero is probably a pretty striking live band, because all their songs are plain Janes and mud-fences. Not bad at all. Just very plain.

Which suits their lyrics just fine, too. Lucero inhabits an agreeably plain emotional landscape, the typical alt-country nowhere where you can’t tell if the men are bummed or just bemused that they lost their wives and girlfriends. A magical place where there isn’t even a romantic crises that can’t be half-assedly—or maybe just plain naïvely—fixed with a line like “Stay and dance with me awhile,” or “Don’t let go, sweet girl, don’t let go for the world.”

Rolling Stone has called Lucero’s newer album, 2003’s That Much Further West, “the country album the Replacements never made” (which is total horseshit, by the way—exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a magazine whose writers seem even more excited about finding one band to sum up about three genre types than they do about finding three bands to represent one type—which they certainly do love doing, a la “the Vines, the Strokes, the Hives!” two or three years ago). But at least the Replacements comparisons suggest that Lucero—almost imperceptibly to my ear—are starting to stray that much further afield in their songwriting, finally looking down the road a piece. There is evidence to link That Much Further West with at least one member’s familiarity with the Replacements, but it’s only circumstantial.

Sure looks great in a press kit, though! Lucero members are probably feeling pretty flattered by the comparison. If they aren’t, however, their group alibi could easily be that they’ve been dangling their legs from the crotch in the Uncle Tupelo tree where the Wilco branch goes one way and Son Volt goes the other for far too long to have to dignify Replacements accusations with a response. Singer Ben Nichols has definitely got the Uncle Tupelo vocal sound down to blue chip, blue-collar, blue-plate-special perfection, too, pronouncing perfectly easy-to-pronounce words like “again” as “gyin” just ‘cause. And he’s got that alt-country yelp that crimps the ends of some words up with a little yodel and leaks out of others like the filling of a cheese dog. Your enjoyment of Lucero, or of certain Lucero songs, will vary in relation to your personal threshold for this patented alt-country yelp—I reached mine a long time ago. Nichols reigns it in a little on some songs, but on others he sounds like a guy straining on the terlit the day after a double-batch, triple-cheese omelette and passing the time by working on his Jay Farrar impression. Caveat emptor, but if you like your alt-country with all the trappings of 10 or 12 years ago, Lucero could be the band for you.

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