In the press release that accompanied the announcement of Lucero’s Women & Work, the album was referred to as one that “establishes them as the 21st century voice of that great musical city.” That city being Memphis, a town that I’d love to visit — and have heard great things about — but just haven’t had the opportunity to. And if this record specifically is the ambassador to the city in its present state, well, there goes much of the urgency to make a trip.
On this new release, Lucero have pulled off things both good and bad, but unfortunately the scale tips in the favor of the latter. Long since a fusion of punk and alt-country, the band have all but removed punk from the equation, a transformation that began taking shape on 2009’s 1372 Overton Park. It was on that record where Ben Nichols really began to separate himself from the forced Kurt Cobain-esque vocals that kept That Much Further West from reaching landmark status. On Women & Work, the grunge is completely gone. “When I Was Young” has Nichols dragging his vocal chords across the pavement in the same way that so many grunge vocalists have done before him, but at least it feels like his natural voice. He doesn’t seem content borrowing someone else’s vocals and simply relying on his genetic twang to make a marked difference. That’s the big positive here.
“On My Way Downtown” and “Like Lightning” make for a couple of fun treks, but it’s the same kind of fun as hearing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” while half in the bag: the song isn’t particularly good, it’s just recognizable and you’re hammered. Many of these songs fall victim to the same derivativeness and, as far as I’m concerned, if you’ve been listening to the same tired bar anthems for 25 years, why bother making room for new ones? The title track is another one that strives to be exactly that — it’s meant for listeners to play on a dusty jukebox eight times a night — but instead winds up sounding like a theme song for Sunday Night Football on NBC. If there’s a type of song that the world doesn’t need to procreate, that’s it.
Most of the songs here, even the ones groomed to be ballads, like “Sometimes,” are fleshed out well beyond necessity with a full horn section, piano, and even a backing choir. All of these parts seem well-crafted from a technical perspective, yet for an album utilizing so many different elements, the songs come off frustratingly small. At a blues festival in 2010, I saw Lyle Lovett and His Large Band play and spent the duration of the show — at least up until we slunk out early — wondering why the sound being created required the labor of so many people. Unquestionably, everyone on the stage possessed talent. But the music itself was no different than any number of four- or five-piece blues rock outfits. Women & Work stirs the same confusion for precisely the same reason.
By draining the grunge and punk influences from their sound and then over-producing every single song, Lucero have effectively become every Southern rock, blues-inspired bar band you’ve ever heard. As the title suggests, there are plenty of lyrics — most of them forgettable, to be sure — about women, the strain of work, whiskey, and assorted honky tonk references that seem in place only to reinforce to the listener that the band is, in fact, from the South. And hey, that’s cool. The South is a nice place with an enormous amount of truly fantastic music to offer. But if Women & Work is supposed to elevate the band to being “Memphis’ 21st century voice,” then the city itself may want to look into some kind of injunction.