For the ninth studio album of their twenty-year career, Lucero were seemingly keen to switch things up a little. After a run of albums with producer Ted Hutt that utilised horns and more complex arrangements to fashion a Memphis soul-influenced sound (they even found room to slip in a tune by Memphis’ favourite sons Big Star) frontman/songwriter Ben Nichols and the band went in search of inspiration. They found it in the rear view mirror as ‘Among The Ghosts’ strips the arrangements back to their very foundations and reveals a darker sound more in keeping with their roots. When coupled with a change in Nichols’ approach to his writing, bought on by a settled family life and the birth of his daughter, the results are impressive. The horns may have gone but the soul remains.
For this new approach, the band enlisted producer Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers) and recorded the album at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, a studio that must have plenty of ghosts and stories to tell. The result is a really cool, live sounding (the guys all played in the same room), record that should please existing fans and bring a few more on board. Lucero’s roots might be firmly planted in the Alt-Country of the late 90’s but ‘Ghosts’ should also appeal to fans of more Heartland rock ala Springsteen, Mellencamp or the less well known Jimmy Ryser.
Opening with the slow build title track ‘Ghosts’ explodes into life for the chorus with Nichols’ gravelly drawl escalating to a full on snarl “First word she said to me was goodbye” while drums pound and guitars rage. The assumption is that Nichols needs to balance family life with the demands of the road (Lucero regularly play over 200 shows a year). It’s a statement of intent that emphasises Lucero’s punky alt rock roots before Nichols tones things down a little for ‘Bottom Of The Sea’ his vocal now, oddly but effectively, more reminiscent of Billy Idol. Guitarist Brian Venable takes centre stage here with his ringing; echo drenched playing anchoring (no pun intended) the song. By ‘Everything Has Changed’ the band are really hitting their stride as Venable slips in a perfectly placed solo but the song would be far less successful without the organ contributions of Rick Steff (the new boy in the band as he only joined in 2006). The ivory tinkler switches to piano to supply the bedrock on which ‘Always Been You’ a dark mournful lament to a failed relationship is built. The first half of the album concludes with Venable again to the fore on ‘Cover Me’ (not the Springsteen song).
‘To My Dearest Wife’ is up next and this superb song incorporates letters written by soldiers to their loved ones during the American Civil War, stories that remain relevant and poignant today. Interestingly Nichols adds a snippet from history via The Battle Hymn of The Republic “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord” to give the song a time and place and effectively bind the North and South together as real people with families engaged in a terrible conflict. ‘Long Way Back Home’ tells the tale of brothers trying to make it home after a robbery goes bad. Reminiscent of Springsteen or Michael McDermott Rick Steff’s keyboard smudges are a nice counterpoint to some darkly twangy guitar lines. ‘Loving’ was originally written for the Oscar-nominated film of the same name by Ben’s younger brother Jeff Nichols, whose other credits include Mud starring Matthew McConaughey and Midnight Special. In the context of the film, which deals with a couple arrested for their interracial marriage in 1960’s Virginia, the lyrics are self-explanatory, but it works equally well here as a simple love song “I just want to be good enough for you” Nichols sings, his voice at its most tender. One of the most striking tracks on the album is ‘Back To The Night’ which features a quite unexpected spoken word interlude by actor Michael Shannon (a regular in Jeff Nichols’ films) which is as dark and as menacing as any of the characters he’s played on screen. Nichols’ vocal is guttural, John C. Stubblefield’s bass throbs while Brian Venable finds plenty of room for an extended guitar break. ‘Back To The Night’ is as epic a 4:13 as you’ll hear anywhere this year. The album concludes with a straight up roots rocker ‘For The Lonely Ones’ that finds those horns creeping back in which is cool to hear.
‘Among The Ghosts’ is a mighty fine record from a songwriter and a band that have no desire to play it safe. If ‘Among The Ghosts’ forms the backbone of their set when the band visit the UK for a run of dates in December then I’ll be very happy indeed.