[18 September 2013]
In music, if genres tend to attract scores of true believers, they tend to rack up about as many detractors as well. Country is perhaps the pinnacle (nadir?) of this idea, as often you’ll hear that people either listen to it all the time, or only under the threat of imminent death.
Austin Lucas is not for that second group. An Indiana-bred son of bluegrass musician Bob Lucas, he has arms full of tattoos, a choir-honed voice and a knack for tuneful melodies. Stay Reckless, his latest and first for New West Records feels like a continuation of his latest work, but also a step from the alt.country shadows into the mainstream; a transition that both works and doesn’t. It’s a positively mixed bag from a songwriter whose voluminous skill still has room to grow.
Interestingly, the record’s most radio-ready moments are among its best. “Alone in Memphis” is a beautiful, brash earworm that would be ready for CMT if the network ever bothered to open its ears. Steeped in melancholy and ratcheted up a few degrees by backing band Glossary, “Alone” features some surprisingly tender vocal inflections from this childhood opera performer, but Lucas knows how to kick shit up during the song’s raucous chorus that begs to be blasted on a summer night with the windows down. Opener “Let Me In” shows off some of Lucas’s impressive guitar chops with some dual harmonies and a noisy solo. Both serve to display Lucas’s grasp of songwriting norms, with extra loud choruses and hooky melodies that do little new, but little to dispel why this style of writing simply works.
Given that his background is in folk and bluegrass, there a number of acoustically driven songs that drift further into traditional country than the rock numbers do. “Four Wheels” features fiddle and a keening pedal steel, while “Gift and a Gamble” is an old-school ballad in three-four time. For these songs especially, Lucas drawls in a nasal twang that stands out stronger on this record than any before. This style of singing is certainly a deal-breaker when it comes to country music for most people; me, I prefer it. While more heavily applied than in the past, Lucas still affects beauty from it, and it certainly fits the kind of songs he’s writing.
Lucas uses this cascading twang to deliver what are fairly cliché lyrics by most standards. “Small Town Heart” riffs on the rural-urban duality of towns like Nashville and Bloomington, and “Different Shade of Red” stretches its “planting flower children” metaphor a bit farther than it has room to go. Where on older songs like “Shipwrecked (Glass Bottom Boats)” he worked in allusions and caged imagery, now Lucas’s songs wear their literal interpretations as their skin, not to be missed even by the barely-there. For someone with the big-time aspirations Lucas so clearly has, this isn’t a poor move, and it fits him in with some of the oldest and best in the genre.
Ultimately, there is little unexpected about Stay Reckless, except for one major outlier: “Splinters”, a mandolin-driven conversation about faith and love that skirts convention and lands in a space full of distorted guitar and unrevealed truths. It’s not revivalist by any means, but instead pushes into something new and interesting. It’s a fine endpoint that by no means invalidates the commercialism of the rest of the record, but it makes you wonder: which way next?