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Lucero gets compared most often to Bruce Springsteen for their street minded stories. But Tom Petty might be a better parallel, both for sound and subject. Like Petty, they have a talent for southern tinged guitar pop. And like Petty, Lucero is less concerned with social issues and the economy and more caught up in chasing women and the heartbreak fallout. Because sometimes, that’s all that matters.

Ben Nichols has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in indie rock. It’s a combination of sand and whiskey and smoke, but he never sounds menacing or dangerous. He’s consistently warm, charismatic, the lovable down-on-his-luck charming hero. With that voice and his storytelling, he evaporates cynicism and makes you care about those sad faced drunks and love struck losers that populate his songs. Country music works because it’s storytelling of the simplest order: small words, concise images, ordinary subjects. Fellow alt-country stars like Sixteen Horsepower might be more arty, and Drive-By Truckers might be more raucous and Son Volt might be more literate, but Lucero is the most personal and heartfelt.

‘Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers’ is a step toward full on rock and roll. The songs are denser, with multiple layers of instruments, bringing in accordion and pianos, and a stronger guitar attack. But Nichols isn’t changing his persona for anyone. This is still a southern country rooted affair, which Nichols defiantly announces on the first song ‘What Else Would You Have Me Be?’ The band picks up the pace on cuts like ‘I Don’t Wanna Be The One’ and ‘I Can Get Us Out of Here’, which turns a clumsy drunken pickup into a joyous street anthem.

Something does get lost in the transition though. Gone is the straight melancholy and somber introspection of earlier albums like ‘Tennessee’. ‘Rebels’ settles on ballsy rock and roll to get its point across. It works on some songs like ‘The Mountain’, which opens with the brilliant line “Her daddy lost most everything/on horses, whiskey, and wedding rings” and then swings into the most fist pumping guitar solo they’ve yet recorded. But others like ‘Sing Me No Hymns’ and ‘Cass’ never quite take off and make you wish they’d dial it back down and do another heartbreaker about pretty girls that are too young for them.

Despite the misses, ‘Rebels’ holds up with it’s consistent sound and that undying charm that Nichols brings. Newcomers to the band might do well to check classics like ‘Nobody’s Darlings’, but fans will be satisfied that Lucero can adapt their sound for a larger audience and still maintain their character and emotional clarity.


Viva Voce, composed of husband and wife Kevin and Anita Robinson, has been rocking the Portland indie scene for nearly a decade. Word is they got restless being a two piece and brought in talented musicians from other indie bands like The Decemberists and Norfolk and Western and formed Blue Giant. Where Viva Voce was sweet, intimate and occasionally rocked, Blue Giant is a combination of psychedelic foot stompers and country ballads. Their debut album is a scatter-shot recording, the result of a well intentioned venture, but has enough gems to make it worth a listen.

The opening ‘Clean the Clock’ has a bright start and a certain majesty when the chorus hits. But it’s a false promise since the rest of the album falls short. The biggest issue is that the band feels inconsistent. Perhaps it’s the result of a band drawing on too many rotating members, or trying to find just what sound they actually want to play with. It’s not a issue that they enjoy an eclectic sound, it’s that some songs come off flat and lacking the energy or intimacy that characterized their earlier solid work.

But when the band hits, they hit hard. ‘Blue Sunshine’ is the kind of instantly catchy folk-pop candy that makes you want to drive fast and live a montage of summer delirium. The fact that the band never manages to reach the same high feels frustrating because ‘Blue Sunshine’ sounds so effortless, like the band is cutting loose and having fun.

There’s touches of Neil Young hard rocking psychedelia on ‘The Game’, which finally puts Anita to full use on the guitar, giving a blistering feedback drenched solo. ‘Target Heart’ is an adorable country ballad coated in slide and whiskey. But the rest of the album soon gets skipped on repeat listens. It’s a crime that Anita, the best guitar player in Portland (there, I said it) is so underused. The band has potential, that’s easy enough to hear, but their first album feels more like an experiment than a fully realized effort.