Oh what a difference Memphis horns, piano, female backup singers, some ballads, and genuine southern hip swagger can make.
Lucero hail from Memphis, although you'd be hard-pressed to figure that out from their past five albums. Loud, raucous, unrelenting, Lucero have often sounded like the hard-charging product of an indie haven like Minneapolis rather than the city that gave birth to Stax Records. It hasn't helped that Lucero established their country/indie/rock/punk template early on and seemed content to make only slight refinements to their sound, rather than ever seriously hammering their way out of the box they'd built for themselves. There wasn't much that was fluid or flexible about the Lucero sound, and the experience of listening to Lucero increasingly consisted of waiting for unique bright spots to flicker amidst the sameness of the band's guitar maelstrom.
The impression that Lucero held more promise than we were actually seeing was only heightened when frontman Ben Nichols' 2009 solo effort, The Last Pale Light in the West, offered up seven delicate, literate character studies based on Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian. Nichols showed that he could write from a persona rather than his own personal experience, and that his ragged voice (and strong lyrics) didn't need to be hidden behind walls of guitars.
Well, with 1372 Overton Park, the walls of guitars are still there, but there's also a Memphis horn section, female backing vocals, plentiful lead guitar, piano, a few sensitive ballads, and plenty of southern hip swagger. And oh what a difference those things make, without losing the sense that this is still a Lucero record in the best sense of the word.
On first listen, though, Lucero fans might understandably worry as album opener "Smoke" comes on like a Hold Steady track, full of E Street Band-inspired piano. But it's not long before Nichols lets his story unfold in a blossom of horns, at a considered pace that would give hyperverbal Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn the shakes. At this point, the horns (arranged by Memphis Session player Jim Spake, who's worked with the likes of Solomon Burke, Al Green, and Cat Power), are merely a nice touch. But as song after song goes by, the horns keep coming in and fleshing out the songs, making 1372 sound like no other Lucero disc before it. Bright blasts on "What Are You Willing to Lose", a low saxophone rumble keeping pace with the guitar riff on "Sounds of the City", slinky brass patterns on the lusty "Sixes and Sevens" -- it not only sounds like a southern band, but it also sounds like a band finally taking some chances and reaping some big rewards.
Lucero hallmarks still abound -- the fast songs, for example, still kick off with the instruments all jostling and elbowing each other into position before finding a groove -- but the addition of a few slow songs such as "Hey Darlin' Do You Gamble?" and "Mom", and the greater attention to dynamics, make 1372 a downright fun listen. None of this is to say that every band from Memphis should slap on a horn section, but it seems safe to say that if you are from Memphis, you do yourself a disservice if you keep your musical heritage at arm's length like Lucero once did.
The recording of 1372 Overton Park apparently came as the band was learning that their longtime rehearsal space and home was being sold and demolished. In addition to giving the album its name, the memories of 1372 Overton Park also sparked the band's desire to overtly pay homage to their Memphis influences. While the location that housed the band for so many years might become a thing of the past, here's to hoping that its last blast of inspiration fuels the band for quite some time.