By Scott Schinder
(May/June 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 3)
Alejandro Escovedo’s new Big Station continues the incredible creative roll that began with 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, his first album after recovering from a serious illness that threatened to end his life and career. The fact that he’s currently making some of his most inspired, personally-charged work is doubly impressive in light of the fact that Escovedo has been making music for more than 30 years, is a couple of decades into his solo career, and that his catalogue was already littered with masterpieces and near-masterpieces before he took ill.
The San Antonio-born, Southern California-raised singer/guitarist established himself as one of his generation’s most accomplished and distinctive songwriters on his 1992 solo debut, Gravity. Since then, he’s built a peerless body of music that’s unfailingly intimate and personal, yet which also possesses a depth and scope that gives his songbook the feel of an epic, heroic journey. By the time that Gravity surprised fans and critics by introducing his fully-formed creative voice, Escovedo possessed a hefty musical resume, having been in the American punk vanguard with San Francisco’s the Nuns before helping to pioneer alt-country in New York and Austin as guitarist with Rank and File, and unveiling a broader skill set with the ahead-of-the-time Austin-based True Believers.
The latter group — in which Escovedo shared vocal, guitar and writing duties with his brother Javier, a former member of early Bay Area punk outfit the Zeros, and future esteemed solo artist Jon Dee Graham — earned a reputation for its incendiary live shows. But their eponymous 1986 debut suffered from low-budget production that did no favors to the band’s anthemic songs and soaring wall-of-guitars sound. True Believers recorded a superior sophomore outing the following year, but record-company politics kept it from being released until it and the first album were paired on the twofer CD Hard Road in 1994, by which time the band was long defunct.
Dominated by material written in the wake of Escovedo’s broken marriage and the subsequent suicide of his estranged wife, 1992’s Gravity was a singularly auspicious solo debut, with the artist’s richly evocative voice and vivid songs supported by spare, mostly acoustic arrangements and Stephen Bruton’s spacious, unobtrusive production creating a potent atmosphere that’s mournful yet never morbid. Gravity announces its purging agenda in the first few lines of its opening track, “Paradise”: “Did you get your invitation?/There’s gonna be a public hanging/And the bodies will swing side by side/And it’s just I and I.” The artist’s evocations of love, loss and inconsolable grief — on such emotionally unsparing, melodically gorgeous numbers as “Broken Bottle,” “Five Hearts Breaking,” “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “The Last to Know” — makes Gravity a consistently stirring listen, and one that’s ultimately uplifting and redemptive despite its subject matter. The album startled fans and critics, for whom Escovedo’s gripping singing and incisive songwriting seemed to spring fully formed from nowhere — although the 41-year-old troubadour had actually been honing his skills and refining his vision for more than a decade and a half.
1994’s Thirteen Years is a fitting companion piece to Gravity, expanding upon its predecessor’s lyrical themes and largely maintaining its lingering sense of loss and regret. But the sophomore disc also draws upon a broader sonic palette, adding string arrangements that emphasize the heartbreak of “Way It Goes,” “She Towers Above” and “Baby’s Got New Plans,” while taking playful detours into rousing rock territory with “Losing Your Touch,” “Mountain of Mud” and “The End,” all without diluting the pensive mood.
Also released in 1994, the enjoyable if inessential The Setters teams Escovedo with fellow roots auteurs Michael Hall (former leader of Austin’s Wild Seeds) and Walter Salas-Humara (mainman of the long-running Silos) for a casually confident set that largely reprises material from the three songwriters’ prior albums, along with an early take on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The latter would remain a staple of Escovedo’s live repertoire for years to come, and a reliable highlight of his now-legendary shows with the widescreen Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra. While it’s interesting to hear him in a looser context, informally trading songs with friends, most of the tunes here are better heard in the participants’ original versions.
1996’s With These Hands found Escovedo moving from the independent Watermelon label to the larger Rykodisc, marking the occasion by enlisting high-profile guests Willie Nelson and Jennifer Warnes. Although it’s hardly a move towards the mainstream, it’s a transitional work that finds him breaking free from the overwhelming sadness that haunted Gravity and Thirteen Years, and stretching out into less tortured territory. The album’s title track (written during his True Believers days) movingly pays homage to the struggles of Escovedo’s immigrant father, and features guest appearances by his brother Pete, a noted percussionist and former Santana member, and Pete’s daughter, former Prince protégé Sheila E. Escovedo sounds liberated on forceful rockers “Put You Down,” “Guilty” and “Little Bottles,” and even the moodier ballads seem less steeped in first-person pain, e.g. “Pissed Off 2 A.M.,” the poignant Nelson duet “Nickel and A Spoon” and the touching album-closer “Tugboat,” a tribute to recently deceased Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison. Perhaps because it’s less nakedly confessional and lacks his earlier discs’ sense of surprise, With These Hands is inevitably less of a stunner than his previous releases. Nonetheless, it’s a solid, affecting set that offers further evidence of Escovedo’s status as a world-class talent.
Following With These Hands, Ryko issued The Pawn Shop Years, the belated recording debut by Escovedo’s glam-punk side-project Buick MacKane (named after a T. Rex song), which had been gigging casually in Austin since the late ’80s. With nine raucous original workouts (including raw reworkings of “The End” and Gravity’s “Falling Down Again”) and the Stooges’ “Loose,” it’s a handy reminder of Escovedo’s credentials as a rock ’n’ roller, but more of a fun diversion than a cohesive statement.
In 1998, Escovedo moved to the independent alt-country label Bloodshot and released More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996, which collects low-key live performances of songs from his first three solo albums, plus personalized covers of the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, and another take on “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” While it’s not quite cohesive enough to be the definitive document of Escovedo’s mesmerizing live shows from this period, it captures enough of the performances’ hushed intensity to make it a worthwhile souvenir and a worthy addendum to his studio efforts. Like More Miles Than Money, 1999’s Bourbonitis Blues seems less an artistic statement than a stopgap designed to buy time for the artist to assemble new material for his next real album. An odds-and-ends collection of covers, live tracks and a smattering of new studio recordings, it’s strictly for committed fans. Still, said fans will want to hear Escovedo’s heartfelt takes on Ian Hunter’s “Irene Wilde,” John Cale’s “Amsterdam,” and the Reed’s Velvet Underground beauty “Pale Blue Eyes,” along with his languid, menacing reading of the Gun Club’s “Sex Beat.”
If the holding patterns of More Miles Than Money and Bourbonitis Blues were intended to give Escovedo a chance to write songs for 2001’s A Man Under the Influence, the wait was well worth it. Although not far removed musically or thematically from his prior work, it’s a far more accomplished effort in terms of craft and presentation, with Chris Stamey’s detailed production bringing focus to the subtleties of its finely crafted arrangements. Backed by an expanded band incorporating cello and pedal steel, Escovedo explores familiar themes of love and loss on the graceful ballads “Wedding Day” and “About This Love,” while “Wave” and “Rosalie” demonstrate his uncanny ability to deliver a novel’s worth of emotional detail within the space of a song. The irresistible “Castanets,” meanwhile, just rocks like a bastard.
“Wave” and “Rosalie” also serve as cornerstones of Escovedo’s next release, By the Hand of the Father. An ambitious, autobiographical multi-media project paying tribute to his parents and dramatizing the Mexican-American immigrant experience, it was first produced as a stage play in 2000. Two years later, Escovedo adapted the piece into album form, mixing songs and spoken-word vignettes, with guest vocals by Rosie Flores, Ruben Ramos and Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas. In any format, By the Hand of the Father is a fully realized, deeply moving work, with its songs and stories expanding upon his frequent family themes and painting indelible portraits of his characters’ inner and outer lives. In addition to some memorable new compositions, By the Hand of the Father also reprises some appropriate older songs to excellent effect, i.e. the True Believers oldie “Hard Road,” Thirteen Years’ “Ballad of the Sun and the Moon” and With These Hands’ title track.
After Escovedo collapsed following a show in Phoenix in April 2003, it was revealed that he had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C a few years earlier. As the uninsured artist fell critically ill, his situation spurred an outpouring of support from his fans and fellow musicians, resulting in a series of benefit shows to aid with his medical expenses, and spawning 2004’s Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo. The two-CD set features an impressive assortment of his contemporaries, heroes and family members (and Alejandro himself) interpreting 32 of his compositions. In contrast to the scattershot nature of most such multi-artist albums, Por Vida is a remarkably focused listen, thanks to the strength of the material and the consistently worthwhile readings, ranging from solid to revelatory, from the likes of Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, John Cale, Ian Hunter, the Jayhawks, and Alejandro’s brothers Javier, Pete and Mario (lead singer of glam-punkers the Dragons).
Somewhat confusingly, Por Vida is also the title of a live Escovedo fan-club CD released in 2004, which was followed in 2005 by another live collection, the double CD Room of Songs. Both albums offer a compelling snapshot of his intimate live performances and a representative sampling of his songbook, carrying sufficient substance and soul to transcend their ostensible footnote status.
Escovedo eventually regained his health and returned as an even stronger artist, making a stunning return to the studio with 2006’s John Cale-produced The Boxing Mirror. A harrowing, exhilarating meditation on his brush with mortality, it’s one of Escovedo’s most inspired collections, animated by a palpable urgency that’s seemingly rooted in the feeling that this might have been his final statement. On “Break This Time,” “Dear Head on the Wall” and “One True Love,” he splits the difference between his trademark chamber-pop approach and his rock ’n’ roll background, while incorporating the folk, country and Tejano textures that have always been a part of his arsenal.
Although The Boxing Mirror had the feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime creative high, Escovedo managed to equal it with 2008’s Real Animal. A lean, mean rock session that’s completely different from its predecessor yet equally brilliant, the explicitly autobiographical set embraces the large and small joys of life rather than confronting the specter of death. Produced by David Bowie/T. Rex vet Tony Visconti and co-written with fellow roots-rock survivor Chuck Prophet, it’s Escovedo’s punchiest collection to date, sharpening The Boxing Mirror’s eclectic sprawl into a more focused attack. The songs are explicitly, rather than obliquely, autobiographical, revisiting his formative musical and personal experiences in a thoughtful, illuminating manner on “Golden Bear,” “Nun’s Song,” “Chelsea Hotel ’78” and “Chip ’N’ Tony,” the latter tune namechecking his Rank and File bandmates Chip and Tony Kinman.
Visconti and Prophet returned for 2010’s Street Songs of Love, which sharpens Real Animal’s tightly-coiled rock sound into something even harder, faster and more cathartic. “Anchor,” “Tender Heart,” “Silver Cloud,” “This Bed is Getting Crowded” and “Faith” all rock ferociously, while delivering some of Escovedo’s most resonant reflections on the mysteries of love. “Faith” also features a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen, whose high-powered management began handling Escovedo’s career a couple of years earlier.
Having managed to successfully reinvent himself three times in a row on The Boxing Mirror, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, Escovedo turns the trick once again with the 2012’s Big Station, which continues his fruitful collaboration with Visconti and Prophet. Stylistically and thematically, it’s perhaps his most ambitious project yet, largely trading introspection for an outward-looking perspective that’s well-served by his adventurous arrangements and left-field experiments with danceable beats. The material encompasses the facetious glam-rock swagger of “Man of the World,” the desolate social realism of “Sally Was A Cop,” the bemused satire of “Bottom of the World,” the battered hope of “San Antonio Rain,” the youthful recklessness of “Headstrong Crazy Fools” and a dreamy cover of the Spanish-language ’50s pop tune “Sabor a Mi.” It’s all makes for a enticingly eclectic mix that seethes with the confident swagger common to all of Escovedo’s recent output, and with the ongoing restlessness that continues to drive him to evolve and experiment. It’s virtually unheard of for an artist to maintain such consistent levels of engagement and inspiration over such a long period, but Escovedo — now entering his third decade as a solo recording artist — is currently making some of the best music of his life.
MR. RECORD MAN’S TOP 5 ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO ALBUMS
1. Gravity, Watermelon, 1992
Because he did so much of his formative woodshedding below mainstream radar, Escovedo’s emergence on Gravity as a solo artist with a fully formed, fiercely original vision may have seemed a bit more miraculous than it was. It’s still pretty remarkable, though, and Gravity still packs a singular emotional punch. Haunted by personal tragedy, the songs’ potent evocations of loss are balanced by a subtle spirituality that offers a sense of hope even in their bleakest moments.
2. Thirteen Years, Watermelon, 1994
Gravity’s sequel/companion piece explores many of the same bittersweet themes, while introducing some instrumental textures that would remain in Escovedo’s repertoire for years to come. Gorgeous string arrangements predominate, but the album also ventures successfully into more rocking territory, echoing Escovedo’s early punk and alt-country background while pointing towards the electric approach he’s adopted in recent years.
3. A Man Under the Influence, Bloodshot, 2001
With nearly a decade’s worth of solo recordings under his belt at this point, A Man Under the Influence finds Escovedo covering familiar (but by no means exhausted) ground and consolidating his strengths as a record-maker, resulting in what was his most focused and carefully crafted album to date and remains one of his absolute best.
4. The Boxing Mirror, Back Porch, 2006
While Escovedo has always been a high-stakes songwriter, he goes for broke on this, his return to recording after a life-threatening battle with Hepatitis C. Although it’s not necessarily his most consistent set of songs, it may be his bravest, and The Boxing Mirror’s raw beating heart makes it one of his most compelling works.
5. Real Animal, Back Porch, 2008
Escovedo’s songwriting has always been rooted in his own experience, but he’s never been as explicitly autobiographical as on Real Animal, whose hearty embrace of life contrasts The Boxing Mirror’s unflinching confrontation with mortality. The songs chronicle his formative years, with an emphasis on his experiences as a young musician and a music fan, but maintain an emotional resonance that transcends their subject matter.