Lucero has quietly become the second-best roots rock band in America these days, trailing, by my scorecard, only the peerless Drive-By Truckers. And they’ve earned that slot honestly, touring incessantly and honing their Replacements-meets-Springsteen act to a fine point, with frontman Ben Nichols’ whiskey-soaked, aged-beyond-its-years vocals, the band’s chief calling card. Over the course of their last three albums—Tennessee, That Much Further West and Nobody’s Darlings—Lucero got tighter. But those albums sounded like Lucero was constantly re-making the same album—a kickass, honest alt-country album—but the same album nevertheless.
Maybe the band realized this, because for their latest, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, they’ve added the perfect tweak to their formula and they’ve done it without sacrificing any of their “Lucero-ness”: the band has added a keyboard player, and the resulting fuller sound has moved Lucero into the upper echelon of Americana bands.
They’ve got a good keyboard player too: Rick Steff, who’s played with Hank Williams, Jr. and Cat Power of late. Immediately Steff makes his presence felt on opener “What Else Would You Have Me Be?” It’s a typical Lucero song, with Nichols painting a story of a small-town loser pleading with his girlfriend, but Steff’s keyboard fills in the space around Nichols’ and Brian Venable’s guitars. It seems like it would only be a small complement to Lucero’s powerful attack, but it truly gives a new dimension and depth to the band. From there, it’s just more top-notch Lucero songs—the punky fury of “I Don’t Wanna Be The One” (right down to the Ramones-y title), and the Springsteenianisms of “I Can Get Us Out Of Here”—it’s about blowing out of town, and there’s even a girl named Jenny in it!
The keyboards also offer a nice counterpoint on Nichols darker songs, “Sing Me No Hymns” and “The Weight of Guilt” are some of the band’s heaviest ever, tackling topics like redemption and martyrdom, and they (the keyboards) help album centerpiece “The Mountain”, a massive slice of Southern Rock, almost approach Drive-By levels (“Her daddy lost most everything / On horses, whiskey and wedding rings” could come straight from Mike Cooley’s pen, no?); it’s that good of a song.
Too many bands that have attained a taste of success are content to sit back and recycle their best ideas without stretching themselves; as mentioned earlier, Lucero was heading down that path. But Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers is as strong and passionate as Lucero has ever been. It’s been nothing short of thrilling to see Lucero evolve into one of America’s top rock ‘n’ roll bands.