… When most people think about Lucius, typically they think of the band’s two frontwomen, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. They’re hard to miss with their mirror-image style and perfect harmonies. Since this stylish duo shares the spotlight, it’s understandable when people mistakenly think that Lucius is just them. But there is much more depth to the band, their sound, and their new album.
Lucius has dodged the so-called “sophomore slump” on Good Grief, their second full-length album out today on Mom+Pop Music (US), Dine Alone Records (Canada), and Play It Again Sam (everywhere). This follow-up to their 2013 debut, Wildewoman, finds the Brooklyn quintet at the top of their professional game. Their meteoric rise to indie stardom has been swift since they burst onto the scene in 2012, thanks in part to their collaborative spirit. The last few years have been a whirlwind of impressive achievements for the band: they played NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert (as well as all the major U.S. festivals); contributed on the eponymous debut solo project of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy; toured with My Morning Jacket; and sang with Roger Waters last summer at Newport Folk Fest. These are no small feats for a group with just one album in their discography. It only takes one listen to realize Lucius is no ordinary band.
Lucius are: Jess Wolfe (lead vocals, synth), Holly Laessig (lead vocals, keys), Andrew Burri (guitar, drums, vocals), Peter Lalish (guitar, vocals), and Dan Molad (drums, vocals).
Good Grief‘s opening track, “Madness,” has one of the most contradictory lines Lucius has ever penned. “Maybe I’ll drive myself to madness / Spinning in circles, don’t have it figured out just yet,” they sing in the chorus. Anyone who’s ever heard this band knows they absolutely have figured it out. They know how to create delicious indie pop that doesn’t pander to the mainstream masses but rather appeals to those who appreciate the quirkiness and the talents of this Brooklyn quintet. They know how to charm the listener, both visually with coordinated styling and musically with their equally coordinated vocals. That’s why “Madness” initially surprised me as much mellower and restrained than their usual upbeat fare. By the album’s mid-point, I realize they were holding back until the emotionally lethal cobra strike that is “Gone Insane.” Easily the album’s strongest track, it shows that lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig are capable of not singing in perfect sync. It’s almost jarring to hear their normally harmonious voices sounding so angry and disjointed, but hearing this other side of them – less sweet and cute than their personas project – is the perfect infusion of bitterness that gives the album its balance. While I feel the band has yet to plumb the depths of their talents (maybe they prefer operating in that comfortable indie pop middle ground that’s neither mainstream nor alternative?), this album proves they are musical gems with more facets to be revealed in time. They’ve even more polished than when I first saw them in 2012 at a tiny Nashville venue (when the girls sported long hair!), so I suspect the same will be said a few years from now. Good Grief is quite good, but I suspect their best is yet to come.
There were many reasons for Lucius’ quick ascent into indie stardom; the quirky mirror image of the two frontwomen; the fantastic, melodic dueling vocals; the tremendous balance between being pop but still feeling quirky and fresh; and finally producing a truly great debut album that delivered from start to finish. Good Grief starts things off with a bang with “Madness” easing in with the now familiar vocals layering on strings then exploding into guitar rifts. Listeners’ attention will remain on the singers, but the rest of band continues to drive tempo and provide layers throughout the album. There is a more radio-friendly vibe with some added production. This is very apparent on “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain”, which comes off as pop by the numbers with excessive production robbing it of the organic feel of earlier material. Even with that criticism this song could easily become earworm material, working its way into the subconscious and calling to be played loud on upcoming spring and summer days. The rest of the album feels like a more modest and subtle evolution of the former LP. Songs like “Truce” and “Born Again Teen” have more weight and layers of darkness. The real stand out is “Gone Insane” – it’s a perfect uptempo anger song. Overall the album feels like to take a bit of St. Vincent edges and morphs it with Florence + The Machine grandeur making for an very enjoyable experience.
Lucius continues their trip backwards through recent pop history. It’s 2016, and bands can now finally dip a toe into 90’s revivalism, and Lucius tries this to great effect. Echoes of TLC, Terry Riley-esque New Jack drum tracks, and even a little bit of 90’s alt-rock in the guitar sounds and chord twists. Thing is, they make sure to not overdo it. Canned hi-hats and string sections only serve as a bed for those essentially Lucius-like (Lucian?) full-throated harmonies. I think they’ve done a great job of making a heartfelt record, using sonic experimentation as extra flavor instead of the focal point of the album. The lyrics and Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig’s powerful vocals remain the center. This is what Top-40 pop should sound like.
From their image to their music, it’s obvious how Lucius has found such huge success. Their music is ageless, when I heard about Good Grief I though to myself “wow didn’t they just release Wildewoman?” … No, it came out three years ago, Rich… It’s held up and it still sounds fresh. I see myself saying that again in three years about Good Grief. It starts out huge, vocals are amazing on “Madness”, as we would expect from Lucius. There are some really great pop tracks on here, “Something About You”, “Alost Makes Me Wish For Rain”, and “Almighty Gosh” are upbeat toe-tappers. Lucius dives into some great soul influenced tracks as well with “What We Have To Change” and “Truce”, both of which have great grooves. They get weird on “Better Look Back”. “Dusty Trails” is a great closer too, I’m personally a sucker for the slow and soft closer and this fits the bill perfectly. Like it says up top, Lucius has dodged the sophomore slump, and created one of the best records of the year so far.
As a band achieves success as quickly as Lucius has, the concern is always that they will start to create music that gravitates towards the center instead of sticking with the formula that helped them get to where they are today. To an extent, Good Grief does see the quintet move towards more of a mainstream pop approach and away from the percussion-driven, orchestral pop of their debut, Wildewoman. “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain”, for instance, is an electro-pop tune where the percussion has been replaced by a drum machine and the instrumentation of Andrew, Dan, and Peter play second fiddle to the harmonies of Lucius’ twin frontwomen Jess and Hollie. It’s really the only big hiccup in this otherwise really good album. “Gone Insane” is the flip side of the expanded sound, where the band is able to take a pop tune and make it into a powerful, emotional ballad while “Truce” is a funky, scintillating number.
The strongest songs on the album, however, are when Lucius is able to merge the past and present together, such as on “Something About You” and “Born Again Teen”. The latter, for instance, retains the grandiose harmonies and explosive rhythms of Wildewoman but adds an electronic pulse to ratchet up the intensity. The slower tunes as well, such as “Madness” and the country-pop closer “Dusty Trails”, are reminders of how Lucius stole our hearts nearly three years ago, where less was more and how the quintet worked in unison to create something beautiful. So while Good Grief doesn’t quite have the same intimacy or emotive power as Wildewoman, it is still a fine album and one that sees a band testing its limits. It should only mean that album number three should be Lucius’ masterpiece.
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