Got Those Cowpunk Blues Again
A man is alone and drunk, stumbling around the emotional prison that is his bedroom, his heart completely shattered. Another man is haunted by the memory of an ex-lover he knows he's better off without, but he's haunted nonetheless. Another throws shame to the wind and pursues a woman who could not be bothered with returning his affection, laughing as she tears up his love letters. Still another comes home way too late, way too bombed, wishing that his fed-up wife was awake like back in the old days, when they would sit up till the dawn, trading stories over drinks.
These are just a few of the characters who populate the eloquent songs of Alejandro Escovedo, an Austin, Texas-based singer, writer, guitarist, and band leader who brings both doomed elegance and fiery rock and roll energy to the singer/songwriter tradition. Escovedo pulls from the detailed lyricism of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, as well as the tear-soaked melancholy of Jackson Browne. Yet he's no folkie: Many of his finest songs boast the blues-based swagger and power-chord crunch of vintage Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, and Mott the Hoople, and the howling dissonance of Seventies-era punk; but just as many are driven by a sumptuous mélange of violin, cello, and pedal-steel guitar. Over the course of a career that stretches back to the late Seventies and encompasses stints in several bands and five stellar solo albums, the 49-year-old Escovedo has established himself as perhaps the finest rock and roll songwriter since Bruce Springsteen.
Amazingly Escovedo has been writing his own songs for only the past fifteen years. He was the guitarist in the early Los Angeles punk band the Nuns, and later Rank and File, the seminal country-punk outfit with which he hung around for one album, the group's 1982 debut Sundown. By the mid-Eighties, the San Antonio-born Escovedo had relocated to the musical hotbed of Austin and, with his brother Javier, formed True Believers and finally began penning his own lyrics. Acclaimed for their blistering live shows, the Believers issued one album, 1986's True Believers, a mediocre roots-rock effort for EMI that captured little of the band's onstage firepower. A second album was recorded but shelved amid a flurry of bad luck and record-label politics, and the band split up in 1987. (The record finally was issued by Rykodisc in tandem with the debut album, on the 1994 compact disc Hard Road, but it was a mostly disappointing collection that lacked much muscle or bite.)
In 1991, devastated by the dissolution of his marriage and his ex-wife's subsequent suicide, Escovedo ruminated on pain and loss with his first solo album, 1992's Gravity, released on the Austin indie label Watermelon. Eclipsing the confines of roots rock and soaring over any of his previous work, Escovedo assembled an eclectic lineup of musicians to flesh out the material. The result was a stunning assortment of kick-ass rockers ("Oxford," "Pyramid of Tears," "One More Time"), plaintive honky-tonk ballads ("Broken Bottle," "Last to Know"), and string-driven sagas ("Five Hearts Breaking," "Gravity/Falling Down Again") that showcased Escovedo's remarkable ability to articulate every nuance of heartbreak, tragedy, confusion, and loneliness.
Thirteen Years, issued the next year on Watermelon, was an even more shattering examination of love gone sour, with a greater emphasis on strings, which underpin the angst of "Try Try Try," "Baby's Got New Plans," and "Tell Me Why," and weave throughout the throttling "The End" like smoke curling into the air. By 1996 Escovedo had signed with Rykodisc, which released two albums: With These Hands and The Pawn Shop Years, the latter by Buick MacKane, Alejandro's side band that included his long-time guitarist Joe Eddy Hines. While that disc documented Escovedo's love for raging, overamped garage rock, from a manic cover of the Stooges' "Loose" to a scalding reworking of "The End," With These Hands was his most complex and ambitious album, both musically and lyrically. "Put You Down" is an ornate, lavishly assembled rave-up with one of Escovedo's most tormented set of lyrics, while "Nickel and a Spoon," a Texas-baked country weeper of familial unrest features a lovely guitar-and-vocal cameo by Willie Nelson. Jennifer Warnes adds some disturbingly beautiful harmonies to the weary drunkard's tale "Pissed Off 2 A.M.," and Escovedo makes a nod to the late Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison on "Tugboat," an ethereal, spoken-word epic that is unlike anything in Escovedo's formidable canon.
Great as that body of work is, Escovedo's ultimate milieu has always been the concert stage, where he dramatically reworks older songs while honoring his myriad idols with covers ranging from Mott the Hoople's "I Wish I Was Your Mother" and "All the Young Dudes" to Peter Case's "Two Angels" and the Rolling Stones' "Sway." His live prowess was captured masterfully on the 1998 set More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96, Escovedo's maiden release on the Chicago-based Bloodshot label. The full spectrum of his genius is here: the brooding ballads, stripped to the bone; the barnstorming, twin-guitar rock and roll assaults; and an explosive, relentless version of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" that makes the original sound as harmless and tame as "Hanky Panky."
Although last year's Bourbonitis Blues is a studio recording, it offers a fine, if brief, approximation of Escovedo's live act. He restructures the 1996 song "Guilty" into something that would fit perfectly on Exile On Main Street, turns in some sterling covers (among them a gut-wrenching take of Ian Hunter's "Irene Wilde" and a smoldering "Sex Beat," the Gun Club chestnut from its Fire of Love album). Better, though, is "I Was Drunk," a song of bottomless turmoil and torment set to a swaying waltz tempo and some astonishing playing by cellist Brian Standefer and guitarist Hines. It's a loser's anthem of self-pity and betrayal, self-abuse, and memories too bitter to shake. Yet there is beauty within Escovedo's misery, something almost grievously angelic. Which is to say, it is the quintessence of Alejandro Escovedo's remarkable artistry.
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