If charcoal could sing, it'd sound like vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Ben Nichols of Lucero: driven by a steady heat that can flare up when needed, and raw-throated from the smoke. It's a voice that fits the Memphis quartet's sound, which places them on the roughed- and rocked-up outer fringes of alt.-country's back forty alongside the likes of fellow rule-breakers Two Cow Garage and the periodically resurrected Slobberbone.
And it fits Nichols' stories, which tend to unfold in the darkness at the edge of that turf, a place where history gets written in scars and lover's-name tattoos. It might be no coincidence that a full third of the songs feature some sort of reference to gambling. This time out, the band takes a bit of a chance by adding horns to the road-tested mix, but the resulting payoff is a big one. The horn section is never intrusive (after all, the arrangements were handled by Memphis saxman and session stalwart Jim Spake), agreeable to playing whatever role it's offered.
More restrained cuts like Can't Feel a Thing and Hey Darling Do You Gamble? pass as soul ballads in the Lucero world, as dramatic as they are deceptively tuneful. And when everything ignites, and horns and guitars and grease-fire vocals conspire to transform songs into anthems - we're looking at you, Sounds of the City and The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo - Lucero brings the E Street Band to Beale. And it's burn, baby, burn.