With Caitlin Cary and a gang of sonorous backup singers in tow, Luego frontman Patrick Phelan glides into the final minute of "How Bout Them Rules?" "Oh I broke the rulebook," they sing, Phelan out front, smiling like a proudly poisonous snake, "just to see an end." If you're familiar with Phelan or his backing band—Jeff Crawford, Nick Jaeger, Charles Cleaver and James Wallace, all current or former members of Max Indian and a half-dozen pop-rock locals—such a proclamation may feel a touch ironic. For better and worse, the stacks of dusty records that comprise their influences—The Beatles, Philly Soul, Van Morrison—have sometimes felt like instruction manuals for Phelan and friends. The goal, it's long seemed, has been sharpening those aged hooks, not discarding them as past masters.
But Ocho, Phelan's second LP as Luego, works best when it pulls both from and against the classic pop songbook, or when Phelan and his generally excellent band play hard, fast and loose with their fascinations. Dramatic cello, distant piano and circular drums fuse against sheets of guitar—some jangly, some surfy, some squealing—on the mid-album instrumental "+/-," offering a pleasant disruption between the tender sad smile of "Run Away" and the seething, searching "Dear Penpal." That last tune closes with a long stretch of kaleidoscopic guitar tones that splash against noise squalls, harmonies that sound swiped from sunburned vinyl and a piano that barrels through the blues like an attitude problem. The still-strong hooks remain paramount, but, this time, they're simply given vibrant settings.
"Bienvenidos," the silly 48-second, welcome-to-my-album jingle that opens Ocho, works as more than a gimmick, then, suggesting that the next nine tracks are open to anything. From the howling Faces-in-a-fistfight coda of "Two No Ones" to the mid-verse Spanish counting game of "Getting Married," Ocho thrives on trying more. Influences are a burden. Finally folding them until they're beneath your tunes rather than simply on top of them—which Luego does on Ocho—is an accomplishment that can't be understated.