Texas troubadour creates glam-punk-country opus
Alejandro Escovedo isn’t just a musician’s musician, a label that typically signifies high critical esteem and low sales. Rather, he’s a troubadour’s troubadour, plugging away for 30 years with a smattering of admiring fans, the respect of his colleagues, and a handful of critics wondering why he hasn’t received the Kennedy Center Honors. Born into a musical family that includes brothers Pete and Coke as well as niece Sheila E., Alejandro cut his teeth in San Francisco’s punk forerunners the Nuns during the late 1970s, before forming two semi-legendary proto-alt.country acts in the 1980s: first Rank and File and then the True Believers (with his brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham). His glam side project, Buick McKane (named after a T. Rex song), released a single, well-regarded album in the mid 1990s, compiling nearly five years of recordings. However, with seven albums under his own name, he is perhaps most revered as a solo artist, so much so that in the 1990s, alt.country bible No Depression named him artist of the decade two years before the decade was even over.
In 2003, Escovedo collapsed on stage in Tuscon, Ariz., during a performance of his dramatic piece By the Hand of the Father, nearly dead from complications of Hepatitis C. Diagnosed years earlier but left untreated, the illness derailed his touring and recording, which had been both frequent and fruitful. On the upside, the incident inspired Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, which helped defray his medical expenses. A testament to his reputation among his alt.country peers, Por Vida is actually a double album. There was just that much to say.
Escovedo is as obstinate as he is well respected. His bout with illness barely slowed him down. He came back rejuvenated with 2006’s The Boxing Mirror, which didn’t sound like a comeback record, despite the three-year interval between albums (an eternity considering his previous output). Produced by John Cale, it stands with Escovedo’s best work: darkly pensive, as if emanating unfiltered from his subconscious. Real Animal, his new studio album and eighth overall, doesn’t carry the career weight of The Boxing Mirror, but it may actually surpass its predecessor. It sounds richer and more nuanced, yet still rambunctious and daring, revealing every facet of Escovedo’s complex musical personality.
There’s a lot going on in these 13 nakedly autobiographical songs. The album title itself is a reference to Iggy Pop, who is toasted on “Real as an Animal,” which convincingly replicates The Stooges’ manic guitar grind, albeit with slightly more polish. Likewise, “Nun’s Song” recounts the story of Escovedo’s first punk band (“We knew we’re not in tune / We know we’ll never be great”), culminating in a brash finale that turns the Nuns’ self-destructive earnestness into an effective show-closer. On “Sensitive Boys,” he pines for his days with the True Believers, reminiscing over the romance of cramped stages and tiny venues (“Sensitive boys, turn your amps up loud”) as the song closes with a lonely saxophone wandering out of the club for a smoke.
Namedropping two of his Rank and File band members, the raucous “Chip ’N Tony” (née Kinman) recalls that group’s similar hardscrabble stage triumphs: “All I ever wanted was a four-piece band / We’re comin’ on like an accident.” That’s actually a fairly apt description of many of these songs, which rush forth with a casual abandon not typically associated with Escovedo’s solo output.
For Real Animal, he brought in producer Tony Visconti, who’s helmed albums for Thin Lizzy, David Bowie and T. Rex, and who adds glam erudition to Escovedo’s dusty country-punk. Ornate strings lend “Hollywood Hills” its weepy soundtrack glamour and counter the bluesy guitars on the rambling “People.” The wordless backing vocals give closing track “Slow Down” a lighter-than-air feeling, as if the song—and the album—is drifting off on a breeze. Real Animal sounds like an Alejandro Escovedo album, yet thanks to Visconti’s contributions, it doesn’t really sound like any of his previous albums.
Despite these flourishes, Escovedo’s default setting remains easygoing country-inflected rock that’s informed by his Texas upbringing and allows for uptempo chargers like opener “Always a Friend” (featuring his loosest vocal performance in years) as well as ballads like “Swallows of San Juan” (its melodies swooping and diving dramatically). This approach effectively emphasizes Escovedo’s songwriting, which remains as concise and evocatively bittersweet as ever. On “People” and “Smoke,” he stacks concrete details like bricks in strange houses, but elsewhere, he’s intriguingly impressionistic. He introduces the mysterious “Golden Bear” with the arresting image of “a creature in my blood,” which could be malignant (Hep C) or benign (music). The chorus, which features elegant backing vocals, answers no questions: “Why me?” Escovedo sings, as if either blessed or cursed. Similarly ambiguous, “Sister Lost Soul” uses only the barest lyrical framework for its forlorn, yet prayerful chorus: “Sister lost soul, brother lost soul, I need you.”
Even as the songs triangulate the nexus of Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and Doug Sahm, the album never sounds beholden to rock history. It’s more of an autobiographical undertaking, as if Escovedo is taking stock of his life, his career and his record collection—which are all essentially the same thing. As a result, each song sounds like a new chapter in a larger story and Real Animal like a new installment in an ongoing epic.