In Brief: What Haim is to early 90s pop/R&B nostalgia, Lucius is to mid-90s alternative pop and acoustic coffeehouse nostalgia. Don’t let the provocative cover fool you, because the two ladies who front this band (and the three men who back them up) don’t have to employ shock tactics to get your attention when they’ve got such irresistible rock grooves and delicious vocal melodies in their arsenal. This is an astounding debut from a band that sounds like they’ve got a long life ahead of them.
I could probably write an entire column on the subject of defending albums with embarrassing cover art if I wanted to. I just spent a good long paragraph doing this for U2. And I’ve been obsessively listening to the debut album from Lucius over the past few months, one which immediately had two strikes against it when I first stumbled across their music on Spotify this summer. The first strike was the album cover that you see above, which is quite colorful and appealing at first glance, until you start to wonder, “Oh God, that’s not supposed to be ice cream, is it?” It’s actually a painting done by a Dutch artist in the 60s, and while it might seem more appropriate for a band of psychedelic Katy Perry devotees at first, it’s really just meant to be a symbol of women who are bold, independent, and not shy. I’m not sure it will translate as that to most people, but the music certainly carries the intended spirit, so I’m willing to let it ride. I have this weird habit of associating music with different colors depending on its moods, and the vibrant shades of that painting are well-represented in this album’s range of moods and sounds, from the big fun rockers where everyone in the band jumps in and sings and creates a hell of a racket, to the more intimate acoustic tracks where this group’s two lead singers, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, almost manage to fool me into thinking they were some sort of sisterly folk duo from back in the day. They cover a lot of ground from the decades leading up to the explosion of folksy, alternative pop-oriented, “Lilith Fair” types that had their heyday in the mid to late 90s. It’s an era that I’m nostalgic for even though I wasn’t informed enough to understand what a lot of those artists were doing at the time.
The title, Wildewoman, was actually the second strike against this album at first. Not because of what it stands for. I’m often drawn to the voices of female artists who aren’t shy about speaking their minds, at least as long as the subject matter isn’t too explicit (because I don’t want to hear that from male artists, either). So I like the notion of a woman being a bit of a loose cannon who will say whatever’s on her mind even if it rocks the boat a bit, which is explored in the album’s title track. My issue is with the pronunciation: “Wild-e-woman”. With a short “i” as in “wildebeest”. I wish I hadn’t read that little explanation of the title, because it just sounds like the stupidest thing ever when you say it out loud (and it’s right there in the song, so I can’t ignore it). Fortunately the material is more than strong enough to overcome that little bit of linguistic awkwardness. I just tell my iPod to “Play album Wild Woman“, and it knows what I mean.
Beyond that, there’s absolutely nothing that I can slam Lucius for. They’re a five-piece outfit from Brooklyn, New York, whose music is rather heavy on the guitars but rich with pop savvy, which that’s gotten them tagged as a more organic version of Haim by some critics. Hey, I like Haim. Arcade Fire is also a go-to comparison for some folks, I guess because that’s the biggest name in indie rock we can think of when we hear women and men excitedly shouting about stuff to folksy instruments and slightly raggedy guitar riffs, but honestly, I’m not really seeing that one. I love AF, but I wouldn’t say Lucius is as deliberately “artsy” on this record. Not that their blend of primal rhythms with organic herbs and spices liberally sprinkled in isn’t great art. It takes talent to write and perform songs that elbow their way into the brain the way their best rockers do, or that sneak up and give you the shivers the way a lot of their mellower tunes do. The results are actually be more consistent than Haim’s Days Are Gone, a delightful pop record that I’ve been busy wearing out all year, and though it may be sacrilege to say this, song-for-song I enjoy it more than any Arcade Fire album as well. The truth is that I’ve been falling in love with various (and tragically short-lived, for the most part) rock groups that can pair up engaging female vocals with an alt-rock sound that has some real teeth to it, ever since the very first review I wrote of Chasing Furies‘ lone album back in the year 2000. Transport the occasionally blunt poetry of Meg & Dia or the childlike escapism of Eisley back into the mid-90s, then maybe jump back further a decade or two to pick up some earlier female-fronted rock influences (Heart comes to mind at times), and you’ll get some sense of where Lucius is coming from.
Just like a good title track should, this opening number sums up nearly everything that there is to love about the album named after it… and for that matter, the artist performing it. Its shimmying rhythm, bouncing bass line, steady acoustic strumming, and its little jolts of electric lightning would be entertaining enough if the track was purely instrumental, but throw in an incredibly well-written lyric brimming with details about how this unpredictable, untameable woman looks, thinks, and acts, and top it off with a triumphant chorus hook sung by both women in unison (one that’s bound to get crowds singing along in no time at their live shows), and this thing is just plain unstoppable. My earlier complaint about the pronunciation of its title is literally the only thing I can find to complain about, and that’s not even the main chorus hook, so I’m long since over that little nitpick. It’s hard to resist quoting damn near every line from this one, but I think the second verse sums it up the best: “Her smile is sneaky like a fiery fox/It’s that look that tells you she’s up to no good at all/And she’ll say whatever’s on her mind/They’re unspeakable things, and she’ll speak them in vain/And you can’t help but wish you had bolder things to say.” Now that’s the kind of woman I’d like to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a long, perhaps sometimes awkward, but thoroughly insightful conversation with.
2. Turn It Around
This song, which may be the most straightforwardly catchy pop song (though far from the only such example) that Lucius has going for them, immediately wins me over with its hand clap rhythm and the sassy little yelps in its vocal hook “Ha-ah-ah-ah HAH!” As much as the musical mood might seem intent on cheerleading, this is actually a bit of a sarcastic song, turning the tables on that virtuous creature from the title track and asking what happens when her strong-willed independence goes awry and she’s just recklessly making a mess of things. She’s got the best of intentions and it feels like these two ladies can’t admire her for trying, but ultimately she’s still a little girl, looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope. There’s still an optimism here, a sense that her blunders will make her a stronger individual in the long run: “She can’t be bothered by the mistakes she has made/But she’s forgetting that’s what guides you to the rightful path.”
3. Go Home
What’s this – a slow acoustic song coming so suddenly on the heels of those two fantastic up-tempo opening tracks? This seemed just plain wrong to me at first, but it’s a good early indication of Lucius’s versatility as a band. The sparse, stop-start nature of its guitar strumming gives the two ladies plenty of space to convey their tragic little story, in which a young woman compares her heart to a rag doll, the stitching barely holding it together and the stuffing made up of ugly baggage that just serves to weigh her down. She’s hurt enough to lash out at whoever’s left her in this sad state, and it’s in the deceptively simple chorus where the vocals really soar: “I don’t need you anyway/I don’t need you, GO HOME!” There’s some beautiful slide guitar work in this song that puts it somewhere between twangy Americana and experimental post-rock – it’s hard to describe what the two guys are doing with those strings, but it’s ragged and startling and actually kind of awesome.
4. Hey, Doreen
Big, booming drums are the first thing that hit you as this track kicks the record back into high gear. Big, proud piano chords are the second – this isn’t a band that relies on piano and keyboards as heavily as guitars, but they’re given key roles in a few songs that help to keep the record diverse and interesting. I haven’t entirely figured out the nature of the conflict that seems to drive this song – the song seems to be addressing a friend or some sort of partner in crime with whom they’ve gotten themselves into a big mess, and yet another larger-than-life, belt-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs type chorus is urging her to cover her tracks and basically get the hell out of Dodge.
There are a few songs where I’m tempted to think, despite the super-clear modern production values and the big rock band sound and the synthesizers (which really shouldn’t work here, but somehow they do), that the group’s hippie roots are showing and they like it that way. The group vocal participation in this mid-tempo song gives me that impression, since they’ve set up an excellent call-and-response hook where one of the guys echoes back the desire expressed for two lovers to sort through their differences: “Gotta work it out.” Their tumultuous relationship was caused by a personality clash that they describe as “temper into tempest” (now there’s a clever use of unrelated nouns as seemingly related adjectives!), but the song makes a concerted effort to look past all of the self-destructive behavior and find some common ground. The lyrics here aren’t as strong as other tracks overall – the eloquence they’ve expressed so far clashes with an uncharacteristically lazy line, “We’re still left with figuring sh*t out.” Still, as weaker album tracks go, this one keeps the momentum going and it’s got another solid chorus driving it along, so I can’t complain.
6. Nothing Ordinary
I must have been listening for the wrong things when I first gave this album a spin, because I thought this track was shrill and grating back then, but now it’s one of my favorites. You can blame that on the absolutely sick groove that the drummer and bassist lay down – it’s the sort of low-end thing that’ll register on the Richter Scale if you’ve got a good enough sound system. The primal rhythm gives the ladies an excuse to be gutsier than their usual on the chorus, which is high-pitched and nearly and repetitive and quite nearly shouted, so while I think it’s one of their most fun songs, it probably isn’t the track you’ll want to use to introduce your friends to the band (unless they’re into the more defiant and less “pretty” types of girly rock bands, I suppose). That’s not to say that their vocal performance is anything less than stellar here – the trance-like melody of the verses and a brief acapella breakdown just as the bridge leads back into the final verse are clear indications that despite all the muscular instrumental power at their fingertips, the vocals reign supreme, and given how many indie rock bands out there like to subvert the vocals until they’re mushed into everything else and you can’t even make out the lyrics, that’s a huge plus for me.
7. Two of Us on the Run
I’ll grudgingly admit one drawback to this album: Once you get all pumped up from the energy of those last three songs, the back half of it can feel awfully subdued by comparison. This long-ish acoustic track serves as a definite break between the “muscle” and the “heart” of this record, with “Go Home” as the only outlier in the front half. This one seems similarly sparse at first, though it’s got more of a gentle flow to it, making it easy to picture the two women alone in a coffeehouse, strumming their guitars and singing of a lonely life on the road, just two people who love each other dearly but who have no home and no one else to turn to. You can see how “plain” starts to coalesce into “pretty” as their voices mesh together during the understated chorus, but it isn’t until midway through the song that it truly becomes something larger than life. I love the way that this one sneaks up on me – I’m settling into the mellow vibe and then gradually those harmony vocals seem to grow deeper and louder, with the pitch increasing as if the two women are using each other’s melody lines as a ladder to climb one step above the ever without the actual key of the song ever changing, until the song reaches a gorgeous climax that has me absolutely transfixed. It’s nice to know that a group which excels in writing raggedy but catchy pop/rock tunes can also compose a track like this one that has a decidedly delayed payoff.
8. Until We Get There
Don’t write this one off as another “mellow” song. For sure, it starts with gentle, finger-picked guitars, and the vocals here are more sweet and innocent than normal, almost to the point where some of those 60s-era girl groups are coming to mind. The key to this one is its brisk pace – the mood may be chill, but the drums keep it moving along in quite a lively manner, and the chorus manages to be the most drop-dead gorgeous thing on the album even though the ladies are singing nothing but “Woo-hoo-hoo!” over and over again. That’s the sort of trick that I’d expect from a group like Eisley, though there’s an ageless sort of feeling to this one that’s hard to put my finger on in terms of what influences helped to shape it. The lyrics to this one are brimming over with anticipation, and the one-two punch of this one coming after “Two of Us on the Run” is giving me the notion that I ought to head out on another road trip soon, because it’s music like this that makes the drive seem like it might sometimes even be more fun than the destination.
9. Don’t Just Sit There
On most albums, a track with such vague and repetitive lyrics, showing up late in the album and having the same general mood as the tracks preceding it, might seem like filler. To be sure, I can’t point to the lyrics as though they were anything profound – the gist of it is a woman asking someone over and over: “Don’t just sit there, tell me what I wanna know… Did you find love again?” I think those are the only unique lyrics that occur throughout the entire first two verses and chorus, up until the bridge. The reason I love this one so much, though, is due to the joyous sense of harmony between its acoustic and electric elements – the electric guitar gives it the right dose of energy just when it needs to be propelled back to that triumphant chorus, while some nimble fingering on the acoustic brings to mind a few of my favorite folk/rock bands. This one reminds me that I probably would have been quite happy living in the early 70s, when a lot of bands had hit that sweet spot between folk and rock, and could come up with tracks like this that were just musically sophisticated enough without falling into the realm of pretentious prog rock (though I’ll admit to enjoying some of the pretentious stuff, too, but that’s best left for another review of some other band).
Musically, this track is the real odd man out (or should I say “odd woman out”?) on the album; its mechanical rhythm and methodical piano melody suggest a music box, which of course is being used to creepy effect since the song is about monsters. I’ve heard similar things done to much scarier effect by other artists, while Lucius’s approach here seems to be more of a mantra, a reminder that despite these very real adult fears that you’re not beautiful or strong or smart enough to make it in the real world, you don’t have to listen to those condemning voices that live in your head. A break from the usual mammoth choruses and massive crescendoes was probably needed here just for diversity’s sake, but you probably won’t be surprised when I say that this track doesn’t stand out to me as much as most of the others do.
11. How Loud Your Heart Gets
The “rockiest” song in the second half of the album is saved for last – it’s more of a mid-tempo anthem and it takes its time to get going, but the big, earth-shaking guitar riffs make it worthwhile once it does. The comparisons to Haim are probably most appropriate here due to the more sentimental nature of this song; I wouldn’t confuse either band with the other, but as they sing of hearts beating so loud that they can be heard even with “a million miles” separating two lovers, I can’t help but think that the appropriate response to this long-distance longing would be Haim’s closing track, “Running If You Call My Name”. They clearly wanted to end with a bit of emotional weight, so the end of the song gives the rhythm section a pretty good workout, and of course the group vocals come together in one huge, final effort to bring the house down. It’s the longest track on the album, largely because it collapses into a bit of an extended noise-fest for its last minute or so, but I suppose that beats a simple fade-out – you’re left with no inkling that this track could go anywhere other than at the end.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Turn It Around $2
Go Home $1.25
Hey, Doreen $1.25
Nothing Ordinary $1.75
Two of Us on the Run $1.50
Until We Get There $2
Don’t Just Sit There $1.75
How Loud Your Heart Gets $1.50
Jess Wolfe: Lead vocals, synthesizers
Holly Laessig: Lead vocals, keyboards
Dan Molad: Drums, backing vocals
Peter Lalish: Guitars, backing vocals
Andrew Burri: Guitars, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: