Lucero has always found themselves at intersections; sonically, the southern rockers have incorporated, and reconstituted, elements of alt-country, punk rock, cinematic soul, and bluesy folk, which their albums reflect. A typical Lucero set peppers in a few slowed-down, stripped-bare ballad-esque tracks amidst more generally rollicking rock fare, with lead singer/songwriter Ben Nichols’s lyricism embracing a similar duality in its move between intimate confessional and more rootsy, fabulist cuts. Nichols vacillates between poetic abstraction and narrative specificity — and while he rarely trades in outright dereliction or grotesquerie, his regular emphasis on the religious, the supernatural, and on humanity’s other soft miseries lends Lucero’s work an inflection that’s distinctly Southern Gothic. Given all that, it really shouldn’t surprise longtime listeners that the band’s eleventh record, When You Found Me, represents another new development: a right turn into classic rock territory. After all, these dudes are nothing if not born rockers.
Lucero’s major label detour, 2009’s 1372 Overton Park, saw the band open up their sound, adding a horn section, tightening song structures, and generally tilting toward more anthemic (country) rock. The decade since that album has seen the band both scale-up their sound (adding keyboards, pedal steel, occasional choral contributions) and refine the deployment of its new sonic accoutrements. Admittedly, it’s been a minute since the days of mandolin-plucking and upright bass, but after a whole mess of modulation across other recent efforts, Lucero have come up with the most calibrated, assuredly conceived waypoint for the past 10 years of their music. Fan-familiar elements remain: “Coffin Nails” is another haunted track written from the perspective of Nichols’s WWII-serving grandfather, while “Back in Ohio” is a jaunty rock diddy, an immediate earworm on the strength of its jammy piano smashing and raucous progression. But there are new eccentricities, too, ones that revitalize the band’s familiar sound and style. “A City on Fire” finds Nichols’s distinctive growl subsumed in a fuzzed-out melody of proto-metal droning, while much of the bridge and chorus boast a heartland rock sheen that playfully reminds of turn-of-the-‘90s John Cougar radio play.
This all makes for a vision that can feel admittedly ajumble at times, and while it is tempting to take some flourishes as mere musical cosplay on the band’s part, When You Found Me is still always committed to being a true Lucero record. More than ten albums deep into their career, this band has established a unique cadence — in instrumentation, lyricism, mood — and that very palpable identity undergirds even their grandest experimentation on this set. It’s an evolution that feels profoundly organic: if these guys no longer rep DIY troubadours touring the country in a van, as Lucero did through much of the 2000s, their maturity serves to deepen the material. Nichols was married in 2016, and as Lucero’s chief creative force, his blooming inevitably found its way into the band’s character. Among the Ghosts, the group’s last album and first recorded after Nichols’s marriage, was almost minimalist (by Lucero standards), a delicate reflection of the songwriter’s profound shift in circumstances. But it would take this album, arriving nearly five years later, for the expression of that milestone to reach full spiritual force. On When You Found Me’s title track — also its closer and emotional punctuation mark — Nichols writes a love letter to his wife, in the process reconciling much of the doubt and uncertainty that permeates this album, as well as reframing the travails and agonies that he’s regaled listeners with across two decades of songs. And so, when Nichols transforms his trademark hoarse drawl into a vulnerable, nasally almost-tenor, singing, “It’s alright, baby / I’m alright, darling / You got to me in time,” it feels more like a beginning than an end.
Viagra Boys’ sophomore effort Welfare Jazz — coming after their debut Street Worms — is a messy post-punk experience that samples elements from myriad different genres in service of its essential aims — basically, to craft a kind of controlled, celebratory chaos. From saxophone solos to a John Prine cover, there’s a little bit of everything on the record, the group firmly in fast-and-loose mode, and it all successfully adds to their loud, nearly anarchic sound.
From their inception in 2015, Viagra Boys have toed the line of “punk-rock sleazy” and just regular, old-fashioned sleazy. The whole thing mostly seems to be an act, as the band has openly stated that they act in protest of toxic masculinity and general assholery, a trend that’s become more common in the punk world of late (IDLES likewise come to mind as a band subverting such toxicities). It’s in this act of protest that their maniacally slow-pacing and genre-bending songs start to make sense: a selective acceptance of certain punk textures while outright indicting any implicit negative qualities. “Secret Canine Agent” is, on its face, a mostly silly song, but the heavy synthesizers and thundering drum beats work in tandem with sloppy guitar licks to highlight the contrasting elements the band is trying to present. Opening track “Ain’t Nice” is a contending with/admission of being the asshole in a relationship — (“You ain’t that nice, but you got a nice face/ Hope I can fit all my shit at your place… / If you don’t like it, well babe, I’ll see you later” — but with an explicit acknowledgment of how unacceptable such behavior is (“Ain’t nice/ I ain’t nice”). The loud, growling vocals transition immediately into a raucous, 30-second saxophone solo simply titled “Cold Play,” yet another in a number of indicators that the Boys can’t be bothered to take themselves too seriously.
The album’s final tracks, “To the Country” and “In Spite of Ourselves” (the latter being a cover of the classic John Prine track with Amyl and the Sniffers’ Amy Taylor featured), find the Swedish band leaning heavily into southern twangy sounds, and are fitting punctuation marks for the album, managing to remain respectful while engaging in playful mimicry. It’s this energy and waggishness that makes Viagra Boys such an intriguing entity, and Welfare Jazz is waiting in the wings to be played live in the sweatiest, stickiest rooms across the country. The band has already expressed that this is their hope and intent in the coming year, and if their sophomore record is any indication, the future is looking like a damn good time.
Steven Wilson has been known to fans and critics alike as “The Prog Rock King.” But for the last decade, the British singer/songwriter/virtuoso’s output has been quite a bit more polarizing. Along with a vast array of side-projects, guest collaborations, and being the remixing/remastering chefs d’oeuvre for King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes, Gentle Giant, and many others, the Porcupine Tree front-man has deigned to expand his enthusiasm for experimenting with different musical styles and genres on a series of solo records. Forever a London music nerd, Wilson’s also started a podcast, The Album Years, with his No-Man bandmate and friend Tim Bowness — and, in one episode, clearly defines his attitude toward and his vision for music: “There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure!” This is one character trait that not all of Wilson’s puritan hard-rock listeners welcome warmly — but one that’s quintessential to his artistry. And on The Future Bites, Wilson’s propensity for the 1980s — synth-pop and EDM, in particular — manifests like it never has before, even in the lyrics (“Now I just sit in the corner complaining / Making out things were best in the ’80s”). The 9-track album’s eccentric combination of electronica, space rock, and Krautrock evokes a decidedly retro atmosphere. But, at the same time, the songs here lean into very modern concepts, with Wilson probing issues of self-identity that seem specific to the internet age, online consumerism, and programmed algorithms: “You’re now the sum of what you own,” he declares on “Personal Shopper.”
Consider The Future Bites as the sonic equivalent to the canvases of Swiss-born German modernist painter Paul Klee. Wilson puts together chromatic beats and computer beeps with acoustic and electric guitars, and keyboards, to form a free-flowing, multi-rhythmic compositional soundscape. The reference points aren’t hard to locate, but they’re often upgrades: “12 Things I Forgot,” probably the most accessible song here, is a down-tuned variation of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” while “Eminent Sleaze” pairs Pink Floyd’s sophisticated guitar rock with steamy R&B. “Man of the People,” on the other hand, sounds like nothing so much as a familiar Porcupine Tree soft ambient ballad, while “Personal Shopper” distills this album’s essence, juxtaposing its ultra-modern sound and a feature from Elton John, who recites an unending list of lavish and superfluous items: “Diamond cufflinks / Detox drinks / Smartwatch / Organic LED television…” “Follow Me” reveals Wilson’s pessimism, through a rock ‘n’ roll satire for the era of Instagram likes and follower worship, while meditative ambient outro “Count of Unease” recedes into tranquility – more-or-less resembling the peaceful lull after the ultimate insanity, the kind that one encounters on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It’s fair to say that The Future Bites is a post-apocalyptic dance party — one held upon the ruins of the past. And while some may criticize this 53-year-old wunderkind prog maverick for indulging in nostalgia, others will no doubt defend the redemptive effort undertaken by revisiting these sounds. The Future Bites, then, is a two-faced Janus; cautious of our advancements, but searching, always, for a path to progress.
Buck Meek follows up his 2018 self-titled solo release and a considerably busy Big Thief schedule with Two Saviors, a jangly, twangy sophomore interlude to the band’s ongoing, prolific discography. Recorded in a single take in a house in New Orleans, this intentionally imperfect interpretation of a classic Americana/folk sound is a joyfully relaxed listen and reflects a major step forward for Meek’s solo output.
The lyrics largely reflect on Meek’s now dissolved marriage to bandmate Adrianne Lenker, and the aftermath of that relationship. On “Candle,” Meek takes aim at his own dependency issues — “I hate for you to hear me scared, otherwise, I’m well / I guess you’re still the first place I go” — while the chorus goes on to lament the melancholy of fading memories: “Did your eyes change? I remember them blue / Or were they always hazel?” Elsewhere, on “Two Saviors,” Meek waffles, rationalizes this very same emotional dependency, set to rich slide guitar licks: “But he won’t catch you/ Suzy, I’d bet you he won’t catch you when you fall.” Each track, in its way, recalls a memory of some past love, and it’s through this broad survey that Meek is able to paint an intimate, fragile portrait of his emotional history. It’s this cathartic honestly that carries the album through, each element individually somewhat insubstantial, but the larger thesis accruing power across the album.
This thematic heft is solidified on “Halo Light,” the album’s final track, one that beautifully reckons with the idea that our past relationships leave shards behind as we continue our lives: “But all our love remains / So why do we feel sorrow? / Pain came in seasons departed / Our bodies left alone / All our love will stay / To live again tomorrow.” As Meek spends the bulk of the album grappling with the reality of the relationships we all share, romantic or not, lasting or gone, the peace that he settles into is ultimately powerful to hear. Two Saviors is an emotionally mature work, certainly a worthwhile addition to Meek’s catalog, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come in the continued ascension of both Buck and Big Thief.