By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
For Lucero's Ben Nichols, the development of his band's sound has been a matter of mere evolution, not a purposeful attempt to piss off longtime fans who wish they would play the same songs on every tour stop.
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The change began with 2009's 1372 Overton Park, which introduced a horn section. That album — the Memphis band's only with Universal —sparked the tired debate amongst followers about what happens when a group signs a major-label deal and perhaps grows a bit tired of the same stylistic structure that has dominated its past albums. Nichols is understandably giddy as he speaks about the band's new album, Women & Work.
"We've taken a more country-soul route, and I've got to admit, we're all having a blast playing the new songs," Nichols says by phone. "We're having more fun than we've ever had before with these new songs."
Such gushing is to be expected when an artist is promoting a new album. After all, there's a fresh product on shelves that needs pushing. But the 14-year-old group has taken to adding new dimensions to its sound, raising a glass to its city's musical heritage, and it makes Nichols' outlook believable.
"The fact that there's all these great musicians in Memphis willing to tour got the band more into representing everything we really like about Memphis music," he says. "It's a great source of musical inspiration and we've got the guys with the chops to pull it off."
A key shift in the new album's production is how Nichols himself stretched his boundaries. Adding horns is one thing, but to actually have Nichols sing for real? Well, longtime listeners may not know what to do.
"I've never been known for having a great singing voice, but the singing is something I was more conscious of this time," he admits. "I'm just not limiting myself to the growling I've done in the past. I'm pushing myself to actually sing a few notes on this record, as strange as that sounds."
Nichols feels the band's progression links directly to the time-honored rock and roll he thinks has been forgotten.
"We've got the honky-tonk piano and the horn section combined with a pedal-steel guitar," he adds. "It's everything from Gram Parsons to Let It Bleed- and Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones. There are horns on all that. The whole vibe of combining country, soul, gospel and rock is exactly what we're shooting for. You mix all that together and what you get is straight rock and roll. It sounds cheesy, but that's what it is."
As he cuts through the clutter regarding what is and isn't rock and roll, Nichols, the band's primary songwriter, also admits he prefers to stick to finding new ways to address the topic of love: "At the end of the day, after you're done fighting whatever political battles you're fighting, it's about who you come home to, or who you don't come home to, more likely."
Over the course of many years and nine studio albums, Nichols is unapologetic as the band continues to develop.
"The people that give us flak for adding a horn section aren't listening," Nichols says. "We're making great records and the live shows are fun as hell, so if folks don't get it, well screw it, we're going to keep doing it."
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