With Ryan Adams off on his own planet where he can impress rock critics with his CD collection, where's an alt-country-punk fan supposed to get his fix? After all, Adams, with apologies to Messrs. Tweedy and Farrar, embodied the Hank Williams-fronts-the-Clash aesthetic in the mid-to-late '90s with Whiskeytown. Adams himself summed this up by once noting, "I started this damn country band / Cuz punk rock was too hard to sing". All hope is not lost with Adams's defection from the fold, though, as a number of bands have taken up the torch in his stead -- Australia's You Am I and Texas' Slobberbone have been melding country laments with punkish fury for years. To that list, add Memphis, Tennessee, four piece Lucero. Their latest, That Much Further West, is an enjoyable slice of hard-rocking Americana for those unwilling to follow Adams wherever he may roam.
The driving force behind Lucero is singer/guitarist Ben Nichols, who, as luck would have it, has been blessed with the same raspy, whiskey-soaked voice that has served Adams and Slobberbone's Brent Best so well. Nichols immediately puts his pipes to good use on That Much Further West, with the one-two punch of the opening title track and "Mine Tonight". Both exude a late-night open-road vibe, which is no surprise, given that Nichols' narrator is driving back to the girl he shouldn't have left in both songs. Nichols may be miserable, but his regrets are couched in big fuzzy guitars from Nichols and Todd Gill, with rock solid foundation from bassist John Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry.
As good as those two tunes are, every "rocking-out" song is an album highlight. "Hate and Jealousy" could be Lucero's answer to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" (or -- last Adams reference, I swear -- Whiskeytown's cover of Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown"). With its wild guitar solo and dark edges ("I got enough hate and jealousy inside me to keep me warm"), "Hate and Jealousy" is the kind of song that will keep the genre's fans happy; dude, it rocks. Ditto for "Tonight Ain't Gonna be Good", with its Marc Bolanesque flourishes and the moody "Tears Don't Matter Much", both of which leave you realizing that Nichols was put on this planet to sing punked-up country -- soulful, pained and raspy.
Of course, the flipside of all the up-tempo footstompers is a handful of slower songs that don't quite hit the mark as frequently as their more-rocking brethren. "Sad and Lonely" lives up to its title, though its dirge is offset by Nichols's keyboard flourishes. Other slow songs like "Across the River" and "The Only One" don't exactly plod, but they may make you impatient waiting for the upbeat songs. Yes, I realize that the best alt-country albums marry rockers with ballads (think "Drown" and "Tear-Stained Eye" off Son Volt's Trace), but I'd rather play air guitar than cry into my beer.
Country and punk have been bedfellows for a long time -- Williams, Cash, the Mekons, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, etc. -- and bands like Lucero prove that their forebears had the right idea mixing the two. Just because the genre's leading light has disowned his past (so I lied about not mentioning you-know-who again) doesn't mean that the scene is dead. Granted, if That Much Further West came out in, say, 1995, when alt-country artists enjoyed brief mainstream success, this album could have been (sorta) big. But it's 2003, and Lucero is happy merely doing its own thing.