Lucero are one of those bands I’ve been recommending to anyone who might listen for a fair while now. I first encountered lead singer Ben Nichols’s distinctive voice on the soundtrack to his brother Jeff’s excellent 2011 film ‘Take Shelter‘. A couple years later I discovered his solo EP ‘The Last Pale Light‘ in the West, based on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. From that point on I was in love.
Both ‘Last Pale Light’ and ‘Shelter’ are pitch-dark, foreboding country. Lucero, by contrast, have much more of a rock ‘n’ roll edge to them and ‘Among The Ghosts‘ in particular is without doubt a rock album. The full band kicks in a few lines into the opening title track, which sets the tone with Nichols’s throat-shredding howls on its chorus. ‘Always Been You‘ and ‘Loving‘, the latter written for another Jeff Nichols film, are slower, sure. But even these tracks use a lot more than guitar and vocals.
Lucero are undeniably Southern, inhabiting that same dark corner of Americana as Flannery O’Connor’s stories. That’s still present on this album, but some of the more distinctive edges have been sanded off. The overall feel is certainly less evocative of Memphis than previous records, for instance. There’s less honky-tonk piano and horns, and more of an E Street Band organ sound from keyboardist Rick Steff.
Still, this works well with the material, and it’s never far enough away from what they’ve done before to feel forced. Producer Matt Ross-Spang complements the material well, adding the odd touch of ’80s Rock reverb.
It also helps that this album was very clearly recorded by experienced musicians deeply attuned to each other’s playing styles. After ten years, eight records, and an average of 200 shows a year, you’d be shocked if they slipped up. True to form, the band mostly figured out these songs and arrangements in the studio, playing in the same room as much as possible.
Happily, this style of composition and recording never compromises the songs. These aren’t go-nowhere jam-band hangouts. Each song has a clear musical identity and, thanks to Nichols, a strong lyrical purpose. It’s perhaps a cliché to compare his gift for storytelling to his brother’s, but it fits here. Among the Ghosts is a world of deals with the devil (‘Everything Has Changed‘), shootouts (‘Cover Me‘), and soldiers writing home to beloved sweethearts (‘To My Dearest Wife‘).
These are well worn tropes in US culture, perhaps, but they’re treated well here. Nichols is especially good at digging deep into a palpable sense of darkness. In interviews, he has attributed this to the birth of his daughter two years ago. Now, he says, he has more to lose.
There’s a lot to dig into here, then, and ‘Among the Ghosts’ is an album that rewards further investigation.
It also thrills at the visceral level of the best rock ‘n’ roll. Lucero are the kind of band you can buy into, whether you come to them through country, punk, or rock. Or even through hearing a distinctive voice on a movie soundtrack. With this album they push forwards without ever feeling self-consciously novel. Among the Ghosts is the sound of a great band continuing to explore, and rewarding us at every stage.