After two casual and sporadic decades as a band, the two-guitar Orange County institution Lud knows how to build a record, no matter how old-fashioned that rock 'n' roll notion might sound. Defenestration Boulevard, the quartet's first since 2008's functionally titled V, opens sweetly, slides through a guitar fantasy, later lands on a would-be jangle-pop hit and, just before the end, reveals its hallmark and heart, the poignant and political anthem, "She Held a Locket."
The song starts as a moan, with Bryon Settle's expert slide guitar intimating the blues beneath the steady exasperation of Kirk Ross' whiskey-sweet voice: "She held a locket of Kennedy and King/Said carry me home, carry me home," he offers. The canter of the drums escalates, sweeping the guitars, the bass and Ross' voice up with it. This is the tale of a nonagenarian who has seen her heroes die and witnessed "too much fear and rage—you've got to turn it away."
That resolution, which scans like an updated Serenity Prayer for a Civil Rights survivor, serves as the wellspring of tension for the remarkable tune; it is the line in the sand that this time-tempered witness dare not cross. And through the three phases of this seven-minute tune, she tries. When she remembers the faces in the locket, she lets Settle's manic guitar solo—a raging contortion of time, tone and texture—carry her ire. But in the third and final movement, she relents, joining the fight herself: "When something's not right/Say this isn't right," Ross yells, momentarily shaking the age out of his character. Again, she joins the march.
The tale feels particularly salient for a time and place in which a 92-year-old African-American woman is arrested for protesting the decisions of her elected officials. Indeed, at least half of Defenestration Boulevard seems to feed on North Carolina's woeful political climate. (Ross is a longtime journalist and former legislative columnist for the INDY.) "Who's to Blame?" references welfare lines and freedom chants, slyly linking them to worker uprisings in colonial Africa. "Ramparts" lambastes the naiveté and inaction of progressives who respond to a "confederacy of dunces" rather than preemptively dismantling it.
In spite of Defenestration Boulevard's topical explorations, the album's masterstroke is that it never feels overly political or dully reactive. Rather, these songs settle like a set of personal meditations—some lived, others observed—where individuals in varying stages of despair search for hope or kinship or, really, anything to keep their eyes open and head mostly clear. "I Miss My Blood" delivers the mountainside observations of a pariah, his words electrified by the dissonant pop dreams of New Zealand in the '80s. He looks west not for freedom but for any friend he can find. Like Television rehearsing Neu! sides, "Strangers in the Sky" is a deep-space plea for empathy, with guitars and organ offering a trance of understanding. Lud delivers the song's title like a new age mantra of solidarity. Even as "Who's to Blame?" searches for answers and shakes its fists, Ross delivers the scenario a little like a confession, especially in its opening lines: "Spent all morning in line for some government cheese ... Took it home and cut it up for the punks," he speak-sings, his voice boosted by a wink of naughtiness, as though you're expecting him to come home with a score of smack and a vial of pills, origin unknown. He's just trying to feed his friends.
After two casual and sporadic decades as a band, Lud has made its most graceful and captivating album to date: Defenestration Boulevard is encyclopedic (a Merle Travis cover on the same LP as a Krautrock ripper?) and accessible (the hook of "Undaunted" hangs like an invitation to sing along). More important, these songs are dialectics not for debate but for compassion, no matter how old-fashioned that non-rock 'n' roll notion may be.
Defenestration Boulevard is available via iTunes, with a physical release in April.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Breaking views."