Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real

Fantasy Records, 2019


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Of all the antecedents to Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real—and there are many for a group that hopscotches through genres not just between songs, but within them—the one that seems to capture its spirit best for this particular listener is also the broadest: ’70s rock. There’s a little Tom Petty here, a touch of Fleetwood Mac there, a hint of Gram Parsons-era Byrds, a suggestion of Smokey Robinson, a dash of Grateful Dead, a dollop of Allman Brothers. Fold it all in together and you get what Nelson himself has called “cowboy hippie surf rock,” a hearty, distinctly American stew of country, rock, rhythm & blues, gospel, and jam-band ingredients.

Nelson and POTR’s musical approach—informed by years of work building their chops, serving as Neil Young’s backing band for a pair of acclaimed tours and albums, and as songwriters and Bradley Cooper’s on-camera band for last year’s hit film A Star Is Born—feels both distinct from and like an organic offshoot of their frontman’s heritage as the son of country icon Willie Nelson. The variety of musical “looks” achieved here by the band—Nelson (guitars), Anthony LoGerfo (drums), Corey McCormick (bass), Tato Melgar (percussion), and Logan Metz (guitars & keyboards)—is remarkable in both range and proficiency.

All the above influences aside, the first impression left by the opening bars of leadoff cut “Bad Case” is “lost Traveling Wilburys track,” from the layered, swinging acoustic rhythm guitar to the arcing, Harrison-esque electric leads. As loose and laidback as Nelson’s vocals sometimes feel on the verses, they are laser-focused on the punchy, soaring choruses that turn this dynamic cut into an anthem—right up until the strictly subcontinental guitar solo, another nod to Harrison that’s out of left field but totally works.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Nelson’s heritage comes to the fore when his voice wavers Willie-like as he sings the memorable opening verse of the album’s title track: “I believe that every heart is kind / Some are just a little under-used / Hatred is a symptom of the times / Lost in these uneducated blues.” Luminous harmonies from guest Sheryl Crow come in on the chorus of this big-hearted message song, one that wraps you in a warm hug rather than hitting you over the head.

One thing I was not expecting to find on a Lukas Nelson album is an overlooked Roy Orbison tune—which is exactly what the Nelson original “Where Does Love Go” feels like as Nelson croons the ascending title question as the background chorus chants “ah-la-la-la la-la-la-la-la.” A hint of Willie creeps into his phrasing and intonations at times, of course, but if you’d told me this was a cover of an unrecorded demo from Orbison’s time with the Traveling Wilburys, I would have bought it a hundred percent.

Rangy characters that they are, for the next tune Nelson and POTR come on strong with the r&b overtones, delivering the lithe, funky “Save A Little Heartache,” bookended a few tracks later by the warm, slinky “Simple Life.” In between, the boys delve into easygoing country-rock (“Lotta Fun”); a heavy rambler full of social commentary, featuring Willie on guest vocals (“Civilized Hell”); and an airy midtempo ballad (“Mystery”). Not everything here clicks, but even when it doesn’t quite, the results are interesting; “Out In LA” doesn’t add much to the old songwriting trope about the girl who moves away and leaves her lonely man behind, until the song takes a turn at the three-minute mark and evolves into a fiery jam.

Just when you feel like things might be starting to tail off, though, the boys turn up the flame with a freshened-up remake of their own 2014 tune “Something Real,” a heavy, growling boogie-rock number that demands some kind of real emotional response from Nelson’s partner, even if it’s anger. The next left turn takes the form of loping, chiming love song “Stars Made Of You,” featuring keyboards from serial guest Jesse Siebenberg (Supertramp, Kenny Loggins) and Metz. Finally, a more pointed acoustic reading of the title track sets up finale “Consider It Heaven,” a beautiful ballad that positions true love as a kind of spiritual transcendence.

In addition to Nelson senior, Crow, and Siebenberg, guest players and singers include Lukas’s brother Micah Nelson, Shooter Jennings, and producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, Liz Phair, John Mayer), who gives the entire production a golden patina, organic but full of natural shine.

After a series of fruitful apprenticeships sandwiched around heavy touring and several hit-and-miss studio albums, Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real hit their stride as writers and recording artists here. Turn Off The News (Build A Garden) feels like Nelson and POTR’s first fully-formed statement, demonstrating the kind of broad stylistic reach, warm family vibe, and pure musical chops that puts them in the same league with Tedeschi Trucks Band, leading lights among the next generation of American roots music makers.

Rating: B+

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© 2019 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Fantasy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.