1372 Overton Park
[Rating: 4.5 stars]
For nearly a decade, Ben Nichols’ hardscrabble barroom vignettes have piggybacked busted hopes on relentless resolve. Sea change beckons, but deliverance ultimately fails. “You’re gonna sink wearing that heart of gold,” the singer/songwriter warned on 2006’s Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. “You’re holding fast, son/You better let it go.” Of course, caution only tightens grips, and Nichols’ obstinate dreamers struggle even more mightily as ruts loop endlessly.
Accordingly, Lucero’s back catalog has followed a similar journey. Greatness remains a frustrating grasp away.
Well, scratch that. Cue horns (literally): The Memphis-based sextet has finally spread aces across. Simply put, 1372 Overton Park is among this year’s finest rock and roll albums. Lucero’s major-label debut thrashes and burns, and caroms and crashes in absolutely perfect measures. Occasionally, it breathes sweet sorrow. Never does it stall. When levees break, Nichols’ hoarse calls to action equally spark (“Johnny Davis”) and seduce (“Darken My Door”). Beale Street brass effectively redesigns Cadillacs as hovercrafts. (Pay attention: Legendary saxophonist Jim Spake transforms emotional bookends “Goodbye Again” and “Sounds of the City” into lush soundtracks.) Everything fits flush.
At its heart, Nichols’ hobo’s opera vigilantly weighs Kris Kristofferson’s most memorable mantra. “Freedom was all that she owned/She moved faster all on her own,” he howls on the buoyant “Smoke.” Meanwhile, E Street energy ignites spiky keys, cymbal crashes and grease-fire guitars. “But freedom had left her, left her drifting like smoke/Left her drifting like smoke.” Channeling Kerouac’s combustible fever, Nichols issues his charge: “Run away with me tonight.” Insistent flashbacks (“Can’t Feel a Thing,” “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo”) and Technicolor news flashes (“Sixes and Sevens”) chase his stride.
Now, the 35-year-old indulges thematic repetition, but doubling down only deepens threading narratives. By close, he’s drawn dark lines straight from Townes Van Zandt’s most enduring novella. (Enjoy that discovery yourself.) “I know you don’t know what else I’ve got/But intuition sure counts for a lot,” the penultimate storyline goes. “You’ve looked me square in the eyes more than once tonight/I figure you and me, we’ll make it just fine.” Yes, indeed. Lucero’s heroes are no longer the losing kind.