Any time a band whose reputation and philosophy were grounded firmly in DiY ideals makes a jump to a major label, there are bound to be concerns about selling out, dumbing down, cleaning up and all of those other concessions that aren’t tolerated among rabid fans and purists. Lucero’s transition from under-the-radar darling to major label act is no different, and while the band’s fans are dedicated enough to be tolerant of departures, they’re also passionate enough not to tolerate any slick bullshit in the name of appealing to a broader demographic (couFiveDollarCovergh). For the first time in their career, Lucero will have more than just raving critics and word of mouth behind them. They’ll have the lumbering – often fumbling – major label machine shoving their record down the listening public’s throat. This is great if the record’s as good as the material Ben Nichols and co. have been cranking out for the last decade, but what if the record sucks?
From the opening piano notes of “Smoke,” which kicks off the free six-song sampler available now with a pre-order of 1372 Overton Park, one thing is clear: Nichols’ affinity for anthemic classic rock is not going to be buried here; it’s right up front. “Smoke” sounds like Tom Petty aping Bruce Springsteen and, which Nichols’ rasp cutting through the pulsating piano, organ and guitars, it works. Springsteen is echoed in the second track, “Sounds of the City,” as well, with the swirling boardwalk organ and Memphis horns propelling Nichols’ tale of bad boys who “know when to push [their] luck.” Somebody’s been listening to Marah records. The addition of a horn section to Lucero’s sound shouldn’t be unexpected or unwelcome by anyone who’s witness the band’s maturation over their last few albums, as piano and organ were added in layers to flesh out Nichols’ bruised and bleak vacant lot anthems. However the band’s sound may have shifted, Nichols’ narrative remains constant, maybe even to a fault.
As “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo” chugs along, sounding for all the world like a Thin Lizzy B-side, Nichols calls out for Love and Rockets and wrings his hands over punk rock girls and lonely saints. It’s a good tune but how long is Lucero’s audience going to be subjected to – and tolerate – Nichols’ bludgeoning of the “rock ‘n’ roll outcast” horse that was beaten dead about the time Green Day embarked on their first foray into rock operadom. Touching on familiar thematic elements is part of maintaining a dialogue with one’s audience – just ask Springsteen himself, nobody does it better – but that’s a far cry from writing the same song in six different keys, which is damn near what Nichols has done here. Luckily, he’s a good enough writer and compelling enough vocalist that the act isn’t tired — yet. But if, upon release, 1372 Overton Park turns out to be little more than a dozen recitations of “boy meets girl, boy fucks up, boy loses girl, boy and girl find salvation in rock ‘n’ roll and live scrappily ever after,” Nichols is going to have a lot more to answer for than why Lucero incorporated horns into their tunes.
Until the full album is released, I’m more than willing to suspend judgment – God knows Lucero has earned it. And don’t mistake me, these are not bad songs, quite the opposite. 1372 Overton Park may well end up being the rare example of how to cross over without selling out but it may also show us a band struggling to find new ground while walking in place. For now, new Lucero tunes are better than no Lucero tunes, and these sings songs are good enough to keep expectations for 1372 Overton Park extremely high.