The first thing most folks notice about Lucero is singer and guitarist Ben Nichols' rasping growl. Evocative of cigarettes, of course, maybe a shot or four of whiskey, and a deep Southern upbringing, it's practically an antidote to over-polished pop whines. Following suit, much of the band's swagger rests in good-ol'-boy tropes: drinking too much, being the boy no girl can take home to mother.
Yet underneath it, what Lucero espouses is mostly this: overtly sensible, poppy rock 'n' roll with an introspective vibe. Which leaves us with an enigmatic hybrid. Is this ... redneck emo?
Why not? There's a risk in combining a couple of love-it-or-hate-it genres, of course, and Lucero has the bad reviews to show for it. (Most often, Nichols' vocals are assailed for being grating.) But the band also has a devoted following amongst those who may aspire to the myth of the bad-boy loner without wanting to lose the tenderness of the sensitive guy.
Nichols has been playing that unique role since Lucero was formed 10 years ago; before that, he tested the waters in the Little Rock pop-punk band Red Forty. Operating out of Memphis, Lucero gained popularity in the early-to-mid '00s behind solid releases like Tennessee and That Much Further West.
Most recently, the band released Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers on its own Liberty and Lament label, a subsidiary of Warner's East West. Largely a continuation of Lucero's earlier country-tinged rock, the album exhibits a slight variation on the idea, picking up a stronger straight-ahead rock vibe a la Springsteen.
The sound of the album smacks of massive rock: Roy Berry's drums are huge and boomy, on some tracks taking a page from the wall-of-sound recordings of years ago; Rick Steff's little extras -- Hammond B3, Farfisa, accordion -- add both sheen and punch to the songs. At times, there's even some serious lead-guitar shredding.
Nichols' lyrics don't stray far from the thematic formula that brought the band its success, but he manages to avoid becoming stale at the same time. He's got the knack for storytelling that marks a lot of great songwriters; even if you can't directly empathize with the characters, they're well defined and identifiable.
For sensitive cowboys and rockers alike, Lucero brings its show to Mr. Small's on Thu., April 17, along with Yep Roc artists American Princes.
Lucero with American Princes. 8 p.m. Thu., April 17 (doors at 7 p.m.). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $12. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com