Album: Good Grief
In Brief: A strong, although schizophrenic, follow-up to an amazing debut. In some ways, Lucius was bound to confuse me a little bit by not repeating the same formula, but they seem like the kind of band that is willing to push themselves into new and slightly uncomfortable areas, which gives them a refreshing edge that helps them stand out from their peers.
I wonder if Lucius will ever escape the shadow of Haim that seems to loom over them. Not that Haim is at all a bad band to be compared to, sonically speaking, but at least on Lucius’s first record Wildewoman, there were some rockier and folksier moments that I thought really helped the band to carve out a different identity for themselves. Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, the two women who front Lucius, aren’t actually sisters, though it seems they’ve decided to lean into the frequent comparison to a band of sisters by dressing as twins for their live performances. Musically, they’ve taken some steps in a poppier direction for some of the songs on their second album Good Grief, which includes some moments where they are in fact, scary good at mining tropes from the fusion of pop, rock, and R&B that was omnipresent on the radio in the late 80s and early 90s, but then there are also some odd curveballs that remind me, this isn’t a band that plays by anyone else’s rules. Good Grief is a messy and sometimes mildly disorganized record, which means that even when they’re performing a much slicker style of pop music, they’re still doing their darndest to throw the listener off the scent. For the most part, I like that about them, even if it means song-for-song, it’s not quite as consistent of a listen as Wildewoman was.
Lucius is no stranger to evocative cover art, and the image they chose for Good Grief hits the nail right on the head – a woman embracing and possibly kissing an invisible figure, which implies a refusal to acknowledge that he isn’t really there or at least isn’t as fully present in the relationship as she is. That would be the “denial” stage, I suppose. The songs on this record seem to tackle the various stages of grief, though not necessarily in order and not in every song – there are a few more lighthearted and/or optimistic songs strewn about just to give us a breather from time to time. Ultimately, the implication of the title seems to be that learning how to grieve, let go, and move on is ultimately good for you (though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it reminded me of both Peanuts and an episode of Arrested Development that made several allusions to Peanuts).
Since Lucius’s approach is a tad more visceral than Haim and other prominent groups fronted by multiple women, first-time listeners might be put off by a few songs that emphasize the sheer force or mood of a vocal more than the harmonic perfection you’d expect from such a band configuration. A few of the emotional climaxes on this record are downright shrill. I had that initial response to their first album, too, but it came in smaller doses and I got used to it more easily. That’s not to say that either of these ladies lack vocal talent, as they can harmonize superbly when a song calls for it, so don’t go in expecting mid-90s Alanis Morissette or anything (well, maybe on one song it’s appropriate), but also don’t go in expecting Wilson Phillips. After getting used to these songs, I’ve come to appreciate how even some of the obvious radio singles and/or “power ballads” can go to unexpected melodic places or have some weird production touches in the background just to keep things from sounding too well-groomed. I have no idea how high any of their last record’s singles charted or whether any of these songs will follow suit, but it’s safe to say that none of this sounds like a label exec is pulling the strings, so whatever popularity they attain seems to be on their own terms, which is something I’ll always respect even if the sound of it throws off my own personal expectations in the process.
I really thought it was weird to start the record off with a “slow song” at first – you hear just the ladies’ voices at the beginning, with the instrumentation slowly creeping in through the verse. Traditional album pacing be damned, this record wants your attention, and I’ll admit they got it here with the stark opening describing an eerie dream, a woman with a gun to her head and then later chasing her friend – and apparent runaway bride – through an airport. What does it all mean? I don’t know, but when they drop into the song’s killer chorus, they’ve picked right up where “How Loud Your Heart Gets” left off at the end of the last album, and that’s when you know it couldn’t be anyone other than Lucius. The way they pull off a key change at the end of this one is unexpected even though it’s one of the oldest tricks in the pop music handbook.
2. Something About You
Another one of the oldest tricks in said handbook is the rollicking, syncopated rhythm of this track. It’s been working ever since Tears for Fears wanted to rule the world (and probably well before that), so who am I to argue? What I love about this track is though it seems like a pretty simple song of devotion to a romantic partner (or possible the two frontwomen’s working relationship with each other) at first, with mushy sentiments like “Your laugh is contagious/I could look in your eyes for ages”, it achieves extreme catchiness by unconventional means. They didn’t bow to the “four chords of pop” with this one, instead borrowing a few melodic twists and turns from the more sophisticated heroes of the late 80s/early 90s era of pop music that they’re emulating. It keeps the song unpredictable while still having its feet firmly planted in “breakout single” territory. Even though the synth-heavy approach is a bit of a shock to the system, I love every second of this one.
3. What We Have (To Change)
A downright solid opening trilogy concludes with this song – another power ballad on the surface, perhaps, but I like how it morphs from what seems like a subdued, piano-driven track at first to another big, odd-angled chorus with loud guitars, frenetic drum fills almost pushing the track into the realm of psychedelic rock, and vocal wailing from the two ladies that stops just barely short of a full-on scream. It’s their big diva moment, in a way, and yet they keep the edges rough and rugged, as if the shimmering pop and tattered indie rock aspects of their sound were at war with one another. It’s fitting for a song about wanting a relationship to change, but not being sure if both partners have the determination to actually make it there. The chorus might make grandiose promises of scaling mountains and living in frozen igloos together if that’s what it takes, but the verses are especially telling about how rough of a start this couple got off to: “Remember on our wedding day/I went to work after I dropped off my bouquet/We should have figured it would be this way/Oh our love, it has never had the time.”
4. My Heart Got Caught on Your Sleeve
Eh. Maybe it’s because we’ve had two pseudo-ballads thus far in the album that morphed into something much bigger, but this stark track just doesn’t seem to move me. This one mostly sticks to simple piano chords and lets the ladies bring the drama with their twin vocal attack, but without the rest of the band doing a whole heck of a lot, and without the lyrics fully committing to the analogy of wearing your heart on someone else’s sleeve, it just strikes me as a failed attempt at drama. Your song title shouldn’t give away the only good punchline that your lyrics have to offer. Leave that stuff to country songs, OK?
5. Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain
Wow. Just. Wow. I was surprised that “Something About You” was so synth-heavy, but that one had some solid guitars and drums to ground it in live band territory. This one is pure girly-girl synthpop, with the rhythm track gurgling along like so many of those early 90s singles I can vaguely remember from my teenage years that were made with young ladies as the target audience, yet I still had to admit they were pretty catchy. The twist here is that despite all the sunshine and rainbows, Lucius doesn’t trust the good weather. Having everything go right all at once just feels ominous, so it’s a song of self-sabotage as they wish for a little rain to threaten the big, colorful parade of happiness. I like the tongue-and-cheek approach – it’s what keeps the song from being total fluff. Still, this is where I get the sense that Haim could do pretty much the same song and nobody would even be startled by it, so it’s a bit of an identity crisis. (Adding the sound of falling rain at the end, after the song itself has ended, feels a bit cheap – I guess it transitions well into the mood of the next song, but darn it, find a way to actually integrate it into this song.)
6. Gone Insane
This song starts out with so much potentials, and then squanders it in the most frustrating way possible. The bouncy yet sinister backbeat sets the tone for the kind of killer groove that made “Nothing Ordinary” live up to its name on the last record. You can feel the anger rising to a boiling point as the ladies sing of their frustration with their concerns and complaints being written off as mere crazy talk, presumably by men. The moral of the story seems to be that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – treating someone like they’re crazy slowly makes them go crazy. The punchline is that the song itself goes nuts – the singing gets more and more off-key and ridiculously melodramatic as they repeat “I will be the one who’s gone insane!”, and the rest of the band just sort of falls apart. And as much as I enjoy anticipating that explosion of hell’s fury, the execution comes across like a bad Family Guy joke, where you get it and you kind of chuckle at it, then you’re mildly amused that it’s still going on, then like a minute later you’re just sick and tired of the repetition and want them to get on with it already. It’s one of the most torturous things I’ve heard on a record (that I’ve otherwise enjoyed, at least) since a few Björk albums ago. At long last, a single, loud thump from the drums signals that it’s time to end the song. You expect the band to kick in with a strong climax at this point, but they stay in lethargic mode and the song just kind of peters out. Booooooo.
Despite those last three tracks all leaving a weird taste in my mouth for their own individual reasons, Lucius comes back strong on the back half of Good Grief. The good times get going again with this R&B-inflected song that has a nice bumping beat and some solid bass, and some sweet harmonic work from Jess and Holly that tells me they’ve been taking notes from some of the big girl groups of decades past. It’s not overly saccharine, but the song does let a little light in as a woman promises to at least hear her man out and have an honest conversation if they can at least agree to stop sniping at each other for a few minutes. Songs like this hint at the nitty gritty of keeping relationships alive, which is something I appreciate in a world mostly populated with naive love songs and sad sack breakup songs. I’ve heard positive comparisons to Prince on this one, and I honestly don’t know enough about the late Purple One to have any insight on that, but if so, it’s a nice (unintentional) tribute.
8. Almighty Gosh
I don’t think the word “gosh” has ever been as much fun to say as it is in this song. Another strong backbeat meets up with an addictvely sing-songy guitar riff to create one of the most fun songs ever recorded. The lyrics are a bit too ominous to make it a total dance party, though – they hint at the notion of your conscience or some sort of supernatural being keeping an eye on your every move and repeatedly asserting, “You don’t have to like it”, with the implication being it’s there whether you like it or not. Whether this is serious or satirical is up to the listener, but that’s where the genius of using the word “gosh” comes in. The chorus – with its incredibly punchy method of isolating and shouting nearly every word – would sound a whole lot different if it was asking, “How could we forget the Almighty God?” But it’s the Almighty Gosh instead – which boggles the mind in terms of how we were meant to interpret it. Even better, the word “gosh” is enunciated as two separate syllables – “Go – shhhhhhhh!” It’s like they want to say “God” but then they’re shushing themselves. I kind of love the experience of being not entirely sure what they’re getting at here.
9. Born Again Teen
I love it when an artist has the gumption to save a supremely catch single for the back half of their album. It usually means some real thought went into the track order and there wasn’t some label boss pushing them to just put the singles all upfront and come up with some random filler to finish out the record. This one’s almost obnoxiously catchy, perhaps coming back to its central hook of “It’s a feeling like a born again teen/Got a heartbeat like we’re only sixteen” a bit too often, but the song really sells the spirit of that youthful feeling with the same sort of faux-cheerleader feeling that’s made girl pop groups stand out ever since the days of “Hey Mickey”. Again, it’s an old trick, but it works. They throw just enough rhythmic gotchas and other little musical quirks in there to keep it lively, even if at the end of the day the song is a bit too repetitive for its own good.
10. Better Look Back
I’m really enjoying this run of up-tempo songs right up until the end. As much as I loved Wildewoman‘s back half, it was noticeably mellower than its front half, and I appreciate them turning that idea on its head for this album. This track might be a bit too defiant and pointed in its commentary to work as a single – there’s something a little earthier about its shuffling beat and its slightly abrasive melody that I find appealing even if it weirds me out a little. They’re definitely fed up with the expectations of the mainstream music biz, if I’m reading these lyrics right: “We’ll say it perfectly and it slips right through the cracks/They’ll mince our words down to a nugget for the masses/And they’ll push it down the conveyor belt once more.” Someone clearly doesn’t enjoy the idea of being a figurehead for someone label boss’s get-rich-quick scheme, that’s for sure. I can see some of the oddball sound effects and the forceful melodies being grating to certain people’s ears, but it definitely keeps my attention, and that’s a hard thing for a lot of groups to still be doing on the penultimate track of an 11 or 12-song album.
11. Dusty Roads
The closing track is a bit more predictably mellow, and more in the folk/rock vein of a lot of my favorites from Wildewoman. It almost feels like it could be a long lost track from the heyday of classic folk/rock that I know little about and yet I’m so strangely fond of it – The Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac, stuff like that. The swaying rhythm and gorgeous vocal harmonies immediately captivate me, and admittedly I’m quite attached to the lyrics, because I’d actually rather walk on a dusty trail than the golden road that the song claims it leads to. It’s about the journey, not the destination, seems to be what the song is reminding us, and while this might seem like an esoteric, hippy-dippy sort of thought to close the album with, I love the acapella break where they pretty much admit they could be halfway to heaven or halfway to misery. “Some may say when you go halfway, you only have halfway to go.” It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
There’s a deluxe edition with six bonus tracks that I’d say is worth tracking down for the three cuts that didn’t make the album – “Strangers”, which is a more laid-back folk ballad that might have actually been less abrupt of an ending than the final notes of “Dusty Trails”, “You Were on My Mind”, which is an upbeat, happy-in-love acoustic track that feels like it could have been an old Everly Brothers song or something, and “Let’s Dance”, which is an amusingly odd fusion of indie folk/rock and disco. None of these tracks are essential, but as much of a potpourri as this record is, they’d certainly be less jarring than “Gone Insane” was. The remaining three tracks are just demos, and inexplicably two of them are earlier versions of the final two songs from the album, which you only just recently heard, so there isn’t really much need to hear ’em again.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Something About You $2
What We Have (To Change) $1.50
My Heart Got Caught on Your Sleeve $.50
Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain $1
Gone Insane –$.25
Almighty Gosh $1.75
Born Again Teen $1.25
Better Look Back $1
Dusty Roads $1.75
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: