Liberty & Lament/East West
"Dreaming in America''
"Let Me Come Home''
"The Wall to Wall Sessions''
Ernest Jenning/Powerless Pop
How many ways are there to roots-rock? At least three, to judge by this triple bill: Memphis's Lucero favors blues- and folk-rooted rock, Southern California's Limbeck tilts toward country and Chicago's Chris Mills employs a little bit of orchestral soul.
A hardworking quartet, Lucero plays traditional roadhouse rock with traditional themes: lust, death, alienation and, of course, the road.
Rough-throated singer-guitarist Ben Nichols could have been slinging the brusque rockers on "Nobody's Darlings" a half-century ago, although his songs sometimes indicate familiarity with more recent wrinkles. ("Noon as Dark as Midnight," for example, is a murder ballad that Nick Cave might covet.) Produced by Jim Dickinson, whose former clients include the Replacements as well as the Rolling Stones, the album is loose and spry, with a minimum of self-consciousness. That isn't quite enough, however, to distinguish such workmanlike stompers as "Watch It Burn" from their thousands of precursors.
For potential fans who suppose that Lucero might be more compelling on stage -- and who can't make it to the Black Cat Wednesday night -- the band is also offering "Dreaming in America," a 70-minute documentary. Aaron Goldman's film is no expose, but neither is it a promo piece. It shows the band on stage and off, sometimes sloppy drunk and often hopelessly bewildered. (Trying to break into a music industry that's falling apart is no fun.) While the live performances are robust, they're not life-changing.
Rather than win new fans, "Dreaming in America" is more likely to reinforce the old ones.
Limbeck has more of a twang than Lucero, but that's not the only thing that distinguishes "Let Me Come Home" from the competition. The album also features psychedelic embellishments and a full quota of memorable tunes, five of them co-written by the album's co-producer, Jayhawks founder Gary Louris. In one downhome shuffle, "Names for Dogs," singer-guitarist Robb MacLean shruggingly accepts that "I'm just like my father was." Yet such hook- and harmony-rich numbers as "Making the Rounds" and "Sin City" suggest that dad was in a mid-'60s California pop-rock band -- the Turtles, perhaps, or the Beau Brummels. Limbeck's themes are melancholy enough for country, but its melodies are consistently too buoyant for the genre.
"The Wall to Wall Sessions" was recorded and mixed live to two-track tape, but it's far from minimalist. Singer-songwriter Chris Mills is accompanied by a chamber orchestra, complete with strings, horns -- and for the old-timey "Mothra (Will You Please Be Quiet)" -- spoons. Despite jokey titles like that one, Mills is dead earnest about simulating the sound of Southern rock and soul in the days before elaborate overdubbing, and he succeeds remarkably well. From the delicate "Dancing on the Head of a Pin" (which could be an outtake from Big Star's "Third") to the upbeat (and lightly Latin) "The World Some Sad Hour," Mills skillfully juggles homage, humor and heartfelt emotion. "You are my favorite song/The one where everything goes wrong," he sings, getting both the metaphor and the melody just about right.
-- Mark Jenkins
Appearing Wednesday at the Black Cat.