Unknown and Beautiful (The Virtues of Broken-Ass Music)

There’s a kind of music that I love, that is sometimes rock and sometimes blues and sometimes both. I call it Broken-Ass Music. Tom Waits is probably the current reigning king of Broken-Ass Music, but it has its roots in stuff like “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by Robert Johnson. Johnny Cash was also a master of Broken-Assness, and you can hear a more rock ‘n’ roll side of Broken-Ass Music on the first Hold Steady album and tracks like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” from 2008’s best album, Stay Positive. I heard a band called the Gaslight Anthem that I think deals in diet Broken-Ass Music, for kids who want to ache a little but don’t want to get any dirt on their new H&M shirts (I just made up that stereotype, so let’s not read too much into it. Also, I have purchased at least two shirts from H&M in my life. But I got them dirty).

And then there’s Lucero.

There is no better phrase I can think of to describe Lucero’s music: if any music is Broken-Ass Music, Lucero’s music is Broken-Ass Music. Their 2005 album, Nobody’s Darlings, was a nearly perfect slice of Broken-Assitude and last year, they reached new heights with 1372 Overton Park, an album that occurs at the collision point of southern rock, Memphis soul, and incredibly Broken-Ass Music. Lucero wanted to pay tribute to the Memphis music scene (a scene which just lost Jay Reatard, whose music I didn’t really enjoy, but the dude died at 29 and, having just turned 30, that shit freaks me right out) including the titular loft where, at one time or another, all of the band lived. Singer Ben Nichols was the last band member to occupy the space, which he vacated upon finding out it was slated for the wrecking ball. Such is the life of a Broken-Ass musician – if they can’t break your heart anymore, I guess they tear down your house.

1372 Overton Park is lyrically not that different from other Lucero albums – there’s drinking, gambling, women, and all of the above in random order (“Sixes and Sevens” features the line, “Drinking women/ chasing whiskey”, showing that even Nichols can’t keep it all straight sometimes). But the album is helped – nay, it is elevated – by the sumptuous horn arrangements of Memphis legend (and saxophone ninja) Jim Spake, who has played with a wide range of awesome people, including Levon Helm, Toots Hibbert, and Buddy Guy. The horns infuse every song with a soulful warmth that perfectly contrasts Ben Nichols’s shredded vocals.

About that voice: having a gravelly voice does not necessarily mean you are capable of performing Broken-Ass Music, but, if you do have a facility for BAM, a mangled voice doesn’t really hurt either. Ben Nichols can still carry a tune, but his voice has the sound of years on the road, drinking too much, smoking too much, and sleeping too little. But it fits Lucero’s songs like a velvet glove wrapped in barbed wire. He clearly pushes himself to the limit on album opener “Smoke”, but the rewards are well worth it. Even at it’s crooniest (“Hey Darlin, Do You Gamble?”), Nichols’s voice is still somewhere between Rolf the dog and Tom Waits. If you read that sentence and thought, “Awesome!”, you will probably love Lucero (or you probably already do). If you read that sentence and thought, “Who would want to hear that?,” you are probably someone’s girlfriend/wife/mother and possibly my fiancee, my stepmother, or pretty much every other woman I know. That’s not a sexist thing, it just happens to be true. I will bet you every dime I make from writing this blog that more women own albums by Coldplay, Norah Jones, and the Dave Matthews Band (admit it, folks – you know at least one girl who refers to Dave Matthews on a first-name basis, despite the fact that they’ve never met him). I’ll bet you the same amount that more guys own albums by the Clash, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and Lucero (and if you know a guy who refers to Tom Waits as simply “Tom” despite having never met the man, you are legally allowed to kick him in the balls until his eyes change color).

Getting back to 1372 Overton Park, Jim Spake certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on musicianship here. Keyboardist Rick Steff (who co-arranged the horn parts with Spake and Marc Franklin, who is credited with trumpet, trombone and flugelhorn duties) contributes some badass organ work and more than his share of honky-tonk piano (see the afore-mentioned “Sixes and Sevens”) and Brian Venable supplies some literally gnarly guitar work. Overall, Lucero sounds tighter as a band than they’ve ever sounded (no mean feat, as they’ve always struck me as a somehow simultaneously shambolic and tightly wound group) and I can only hope Spake and Franklin come out on the road with them for some live hornage (also, I can hope they come to Los Angeles. Please?)

Earlier in 2009, I discussed Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight album as having the mood of a night on the town: starting with all the promise that brings and ending with drunken half-disaster. If that’s the case for Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight, Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park is the feeling of several nights on the road, in clubs with no dress code (look at the cover of the Franz Ferdinand album – those guys are going to much better clubs than you and I are), starting with waking up in a strange town sometime after noon, and ending after a raucous rock ‘n’ roll show and a night of drinking with a band that, though vastly underrated in this reporter’s opinion, is one of America’s finest.

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2 thoughts on “Unknown and Beautiful (The Virtues of Broken-Ass Music)

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan’s Finest Hour « Bollocks!

  2. Pingback: The Lazy Friday Mix: Moving Edition « Bollocks!

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