Photo by Steven Jonathan
If you didn’t know, Paul Luc is a Pittsburgh bard with folk/country tendencies; sharp, biting lyrics; and a voice like honey. His interests include riding motorcycles, playing with Randy Baumann’s Ramble band, and drinking good whiskey. And it’s been over three years since he’s released a new album.
But the long wait is about to be over—Bad Seed, his third full-length record, drops everywhere on Friday, February 9th.
And, without exaggeration—it’s a masterpiece. (Even Rolling Stone has taken notice.)
He’s brought back his signature blend: authentic, passionate warmth with thought-provoking depth and openness. Luc is a poet, a natural storyteller, a wordsmith that consistently wows you with his sheer eloquence. His songs are their own miniature worlds, with developed characters and immersive scenery. This knack for spinning narratives makes him a perfect fit for the classic country/folk/singer-songwriter niche he’s carved out—one that, in his hands, has never felt stale for a second.
But Luc’s growth, both personally and musically, is evident on this album. It’s a little darker than his previous releases, reflective of more lived experiences. The introspection is harsher. The honesty, both with himself and about his surroundings, is more brutal. Gorgeous guitar riffs, pedal steel pleas, wavering phrases on the keys, and smooth vocal lines still abound. But now they share a sonic space with raw edges, distortion, and charged moments of grit. These energies are woven together expertly, by both the musicians and the production team.
The unique approach Luc took in tracking the album played a big part in this shift. Bad Seed was recorded in a feverish five-day creative spurt at Welcome to 1979 Studios in Nashville. In a nod to the recording sessions of yesteryear, Luc assembled a supergroup of musicians he’d never met, eschewed the pre-recording rehearsal process, and laid down the tracks on actual tape. “I had this sort of romantic idea,” he explains in his press release. “I’d see photos of songwriters and musicians on a studio floor together, no computers, just doing things in that moment, which is probably what made a lot of the records that a lot of us idolize so great.” He continues, “So I got this idea that I wanted to get acquaintances or strangers together and just do that.”
These unconventional choices paid off. The flow on this album, both within songs and between them, is the mark of seasoned musicians following their instincts, trusting each other and themselves. The group included drummer Paul Griffith, bassist Cameron Carrus, backing vocalist Leah Blevins, as well as two players from Sturgill Simpson’s 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth: Jefferson Crow on keys, and Laur “Lil’ Joe” Joamets on guitar/pedal steel. Randy Baumann also contributed with additional key parts on a few tracks, as did producer Dave Hidek with percussion. Luc himself sings, of course, but he plays an impressive acoustic guitar too. It takes the spotlight in ballads like “Where All the Time Goes,” and adds dimension and contrast to faster tracks like “War Is Hell.”
“On any kind of curve or spectrum, you’ve got outliers of people who are just saintly, and people who are truly psychotic,” Luc says in the Rolling Stone piece. “But the rest of us are somewhere in the middle of this mix of good and bad things that make us up. For me, Bad Seed was a number of songs that take a look at myself and where I’ve been, people I’ve been with, and asking whether or not I carried myself the right way.”
This album tugs at your heartstrings while it shimmers in the air. This album addresses ugly emotions with ferocity, and regrets with piercing introspection. There’s a wisdom, a deep sense of understanding that permeates these words. The intention and passion with which they’re sung, and the spontaneous, skillful energy of the music they’re a part of, make for an incredible combination.
This album seeks redemption and finds just enough of it to give us—and Luc himself—a bit of hope. As he expresses, sorts through, and reflects on his emotional journey, he helps you do the same with yours. But he handled most of the heavy lifting; you just get to sit back and listen. Aren’t you lucky?
The record opens up with the pretty, lilting track “Restless Mind.” Its comforting musical backdrop—in which the pedal steel and wavering, organ-esque keys dance over an acoustic guitar foundation—belies its lyrical subject matter: all-consuming anxiety. Luc sings, “Watching storm clouds gather in my head/A rabid dog I should not have fed/I’ve collected every single question that I’ve found lyin’ round/it’s much more than I can afford, but I pay it anyhow.” It captures the timeless, intimate vibe that’s defined Luc’s style, and serves as a thematic and sonic bridge between the old (2014’s Tried & True) and the new.
“Slow Dancing,” in another twist, kicks the energy up a notch. The electric guitar and drums take a more prominent role here, a subtle flirtation with classic rock that we’ll see more of as the record progresses. Leah Blevins joins him on backup vocals for this song, which centers around the push-pull of a captivating yet unsatisfying relationship that hasn’t had its cord cut just yet. Despite Luc’s interest treating him like he’s “a free vacation from the doldrums of [her] life,” his inebriated state just can’t leave: “All because I’m six drinks into the night/It feels good, it must be right.” The repetition of that last phrase lays out the conflict, but the ultimatum Luc offers at the end provides satisfaction: “We’ve been slow dancing too long/for you to not, make up your mind.” Pay attention to when Crow’s Wurlitzer riff opens up into a gritty guitar solo from Joamets in the instrumental—it’s killer.
“War Is Hell” is another track that wraps a dark center in upbeat, foot-tapping packaging. In this case, that center is something depressingly common: a soldier returned from war who can’t readjust to civilian life and struggles with his mental health. The concrete, domestic scenes Luc describes (a happy dog on the loose, a wedding ring lost down a sink drain) contrast with the repeating chorus line “I never could find myself,” driving home this sense of confusion and loss. Musically, however, the instruments are warm, and the energy is bouncing. The subtle change in the final chorus to “I never did find myself/How do I?,” and the higher, desperate tone in Luc’s voice are smart, impactful choices. Listen for the lyrical moment when he sings the title phrase. It packs a heavy punch.
The fourth track, “Lone Wolves,” is one of my personal favorites. A driving, rollicking instrumental introduction invokes a classic rock vibe, with a great catchy riff that reappears throughout the song. Here, he pointedly addresses the unsettling feeling of social isolation in a room full of people you can’t relate to, inspired by a real-life party from his corporate past: “Conditioned by the time you spent/untangling lines that weren’t quite what you meant/Oh I know, that you know/that it’s hard to make/so much small talk when the ice won’t break, no it won’t.” Blevins joins him again, playing the role of the stranger across the room who also seemed out of place: “Oh, with everyone around/why do us wallflowers feel strange and alone?/…We’re both lone wolves/always been on our own/even when we’re not alone.” It’s a rare treat to hear him sing with someone else, and Luc’s and Blevin’s warm voices blend skillfully.
“Fork in My Road” returns to a more classic country sound, albeit one with a bouncing percussive undercurrent and subtle waves of instrumental energy. It’s a plaintive ode to someone Luc cares about deeply, but has had to leave behind: the line “I think about you/at every fork in my road” is repeated several times. Here, the music and the words seem to align more closely. Both poignantly depict a reflective, difficult journey. Minor chords are more prevalent, and the wavering steel guitar provides both immersive midtones and beautiful, wailing high notes, Luc has been no lyrical slouch yet, but the words here are standouts among standouts: “I’m the cons and you’re the pros/You’re good luck and I’m black crows/You are the anchor that I need, yet I oppose/But I’ll always think about you/at every fork in my road.” This isn’t the only gem that made me say “damn” out loud, but I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.
“Driving Rain” brings things back to basics: a comparatively sparse, slow ballad, and a perfectly-timed breather. The acoustic guitar intro line is calming and lovely, and exactly what’s needed at this point in the album. As it reappears throughout the track, the sonic layers build—steel guitar, light percussion, subtle keys—to gorgeous effect. This puts even more emphasis on Luc’s voice. He often extends words and phrases with multiple notes, drawing attention to both the emotional weight of the words and his impressive vocal dexterity. That hard-hitting introspection I mentioned earlier is present here, in spades: “Blew all my money up my nose/I wore sorrow on my sleeve and now it shows/that none of those things made me whole that I chose/I was just bleedin’ from the thorns of a goddamn rose/Oh she cut me to my bones/Oh she cut me to my boooones/Oh she cut me to my…” It’s a song you’ll want to melt into.
The next track, “Desire,” depicts Luc’s longing for a dangerous but irresistible woman. Its scene is superbly set by its earnest-yet-restrained beat, alluring pedal steel riff, and dazzling lyricism. You can practically feel the tension, the exchanged glances across the room: “You had a cult in the corner of St. James bar/Where you sacrificed so many men on your altar/Where you turned my blood into bottom-shelf wine/What a miracle.” Highlights include that steel riff dancing with the bassline in the instrumental interlude, and this hard-hitting quip: “Your glance is a pathological liar/and so is desire.”
The title track, “Bad Seed,” is Luc’s weirdest-sounding song yet—and that’s a good thing. He unleashes a plethora of metaphors and analogies to describe all the ways he wronged someone who loved him and only meant well: “Her branches cried those leaves of ragged tears/and I raked them up and burned them all these years/What scorched earth did I leave?/I lost the forest when I was in her trees/Born…a bad seed.” At times I thought these rapid-fire rhetorical devices were a bit overdone, but he brings it back to more straightforward territory soon enough. Driving, insistent percussion attacks and retreats, while gritty, distorted guitar parts provide the sonic expression of his angst. The ending of each chorus, and the slowed-down outro to the song overall, is aggressive, effective, and so cool.
That aggression is redirected from the internal to the external on “Vengeance.” The guitars and drums take the instrumental lead here—they’re energetic, gritty, and they genuinely rock. Luc’s voice channels this power and anger as well, which gives the lyrics even more bite: “Spittin’ in the wind/it’s risky/I treat fate like I treat good whiskey/It doesn’t need any fussin’ or fixin’/I just leave it the hell alone.” The song’s abrupt ending is fitting for its sense of frustration. And we get a cool peek into the recording process, an Easter egg of sorts, with the final spoken line: “I can play it different…but I don’t know if I can play it better.”
Finally, we’re at the last track. I won’t mince words here. “Where All the Time Goes,” is a stunning, goosebump-inducing, heart-wrenching ballad. It’s stripped down to the essentials—layers of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Luc’s voice with a shimmering reverb effect, and very slight background keys in the song’s second half. But what’s not the only way in which this song is vulnerable. The lyrics are a painful, longing confession; an ode to an all-consuming memory of someone from his past: “I was swept up from an undertow you triggered from some pulses in my heart/This bloodhound’s braying, but the trail’s been lost/Maybe I will find you in the cosmic dust…/I was always trying to sing to you/I just couldn’t learn your song/Hell if I know why it went so wrong.” The vocals get higher and more passionate as the emotions and memories stack. Most of us have someone in our pasts who this song, this feeling, can apply to, which makes it hit that much harder. The song concludes with an extended, reverb-heavy outro, which I always appreciate. It gives you a chance to reflect on the journey you just took and amplifies the emotional impact. There’s no way this track could be anything but a finale.
I think I’ve made my point. Paul Luc has done Pittsburgh more than proud with Bad Seed. Buy a copy, take the time to truly listen, throw it in your car for those long drives…and thank us later.
You can stream and download Bad Seed on Paul Luc’s Bandcamp starting February 9th. It will be available on other electronic music platforms that day as well. You can also order a physical copy (either CD or vinyl) on his website. Keep up with him on Facebook if you don’t already. And don’t miss his headlining gig (with a full band) at Mr. Smalls Theater on Saturday, March 10th. More details can be found here, and you can buy tickets here.