Sad Songs Say So Much

Given the subgenre's infatuation with honky-tonk fatalism and singer/songwriter angst, it's no wonder the roots rockers who populate the landscape of altcountry are such a sad, mopey, inward-thinking bunch. Few of the ironically dubbed "No Depression" crew, however, have expanded the vocabulary of depressive expoundings with the lyrical flair and musical inventiveness of Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Tweedy, ringleader of the Chicago-based Wilco. And with their latest albums (the former's Bourbonitis Blues (Bloodshot), the latter with Summer Teeth (Reprise)) each has further redefined the possibilities of this increasingly conservative branch of countrified rock and rockified country.

Both artists share considerable common ground, beginning with their respective pedigrees. Escovedo has been around since the late Seventies, playing with the Los Angeles punk group the Nuns, the seminal cowpunk outfit Rank and File, and the True Believers, a blazing live band from Austin that never managed to harness their energy in the studio despite two attempts during an ill-fated stint with EMI in the mid-Eighties. Tweedy, meanwhile, helped create the altcountry genre as a singer and songwriter with Uncle Tupelo, the group he and Jay Farrar formed in the late Eighties. They kept it together until 1994, when after four mostly brilliant albums, Farrar split to form Son Volt, leaving Tweedy to assemble Wilco. And with each album following their 1995 debut A.M., Wilco successfully broke free of the confines of neo-trad conservatism with the eclectic 1996 masterpiece, Being There, then paired up with Billy Bragg this past year for Mermaid Avenue, a critically acclaimed collection of previously unrecorded songs by the late Woody Guthrie.

At least part of the creative aesthetic Escovedo and Tweedy share is a determination to experiment within and beyond the realm of the altcountry boundaries. Escovedo did it with the incorporation of strings into his raunch-guitar wailers. Tweedy did it with his ability to pull together, and make his own, the disparate sounds from rock and pop history, from the obsessive studio diddlings of Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson to the dissonant, fuzzball wallop of the Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse. What connects their work, though, is the almost insufferable sadness and melancholy that is shot through it, a poetic pinpointing of the pathos and tragedy of sleepless nights and broken hearts, of hope crumbling to dust, and love turning sour.

Which isn't to say their music is bereft of beauty. Bourbonitis Blues, Escovedo's fifth solo album, is a string-laden affair in which weeping violins and carefully stroked cellos are fused with scorching electric guitars, a throttling rhythm section, and layers of acoustic guitar. His explorations of the darkest corners of torment and angst are underpinned by the ache in his throaty, rough-hewn vocals, which are forceful but never forced, and ragged in all the right ways. And as with every album in his solo canon (Gravity, Thirteen Years, With These Hands, and More Miles Than Money, issued between 1992 and 1998), Escovedo proves he can do practically anything, and do it as well as anyone, from blazing power-chord assaults that reveal his love of the Stooges and the Stones to teary-eyed ballads that could turn George Jones into a sobbing shell of a man.

Always a sucker for a great song, and with an ear sharp enough to pick them out, Escovedo has peppered his solo albums and live shows with covers that run the gamut of his diverse tastes. Since his days in the True Believers, Escovedo has turned in definitive versions of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," Mott the Hoople's "Walking with a Mountain," the Rolling Stones' "Sway," Lou Reed's "Street Hassle," and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Loose," among many others.

He has devoted more than half of the nine-track Bourbonitis Blues to covers, but rather than smacking of a loss of any original ideas, the songs he has assembled serve to complement the set's four originals. And they also provide some of the album's greatest moments. Ian Hunter's "Irene Wilde," a tale of scorned love and revenge featuring one of Escovedo's most gut-wrenching vocals, unfolds amid an intimate setting of acoustic guitars (via Escovedo and long-time sideman Joe Eddy Hines), Brian Standefer's cello, and David Perales's violin. The same group also turns in a convincing reading of John Cale's "Amsterdam," in which a lonely lover grapples with the happiness of his globetrotting ex. Mekons/Waco Brothers frontman Jon Langford takes the lead vocal on a loose-limbed romp through Jimmie Rodgers's "California Blues," while resurgent country chanteuse Kelly Hogan joins Escovedo in a sweetly mournful version of the Velvets' "Pale Blue Eyes." Meanwhile the Gun Club's postpunk howler "Sex Beat" is completely overhauled, with the original's frantic tempo and the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce's searing vocals discarded in favor of a languid tempo, dynamics laced with late-night atmosphere, and a creepy ambiance that's haunting and bone-chilling.

As for his own offerings, Escovedo serves up an energetic throwaway ("Sacramento & Polk"); a throttling raver of self-loathing ("Everybody Loves Me"); and a slow, crunching version of "Guilty," first cut on 1995's With These Hands. It's the set-opening waltz "I Was Drunk," however, that summarizes everything Escovedo does best. Exhausted, confused, and bombed, he stumbles around his empty house, wracked with loneliness and despair, circling the bed he once shared with the girl who got away. The song builds slowly, first with acoustic guitar, then light flourishes of strings and percussion, and finally an explosion of controlled but chaotic noise, with Escovedo spitting out words as if they were poison, unable to get that awful, pathetic night out of his mind, knowing full well that another one just like it is waiting for him when the sun goes down and the bottle is open. It's a masterpiece of despair, the soundtrack for those nights when heartache is harder to shake than heroin.

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