For those who've followed the musical evolution of Alejandro Escovedo, it seems likely that No Depression magazine, a periodical about -- what else -- being happy in an alternative-country world, would name him "Artist of the Decade" (see No Depression, March 1998). For practically everyone else, it seems likely that said mag and this guy with the Latino name are big unknowns. And that's too damn bad. Anyone who digs mature and intelligent American music that hasn't forgotten (but isn't necessarily limited by) its folk roots or its rock adolescence should check them both out.
In the case of Austin resident Escovedo, his membership in several legendary groups, five acclaimed solo CDs and almost two decades of regular performances in Houston clubs have given some a chance to do just that. In the process, these people have experienced the way Escovedo experiments with musical styles and instrumentation, the way he pens a lyric and the way he has emerged as a powerfully honest singer.
Some Houstonians will remember Escovedo would play at Fitzgerald's in the early 1980s and tear up the place with his guitar-playing in the proto-country-punk band Rank and File. Later he would grace Houston stages as leader of the best three-guitar rock group never to hit the big time, the True Believers. More recently, Escovedo occasionally fronted a hellbent-for-hard-rocking unit known as Buick MacKane.
But more significant than all of these commendable band projects is the work the 48-year-old artist has delivered under his name alone, starting around 1990 with the deeply atmospheric Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra.
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That experiment was merely a prelude for the solo debut, 1992's Gravity (Watermelon), a collection of 11 original songs, which featured references to classical music, rock and folk with a personal and imagistically rich poetry. Then in 1993 Watermelon released Escovedo's 15-track concept album, Thirteen Years, a beautiful, haunting response to the suicide of the mother of his two daughters.
Following a period of transitions both personal and professional, Escovedo resurfaced with a finely wrought 1996 disc on the Ryko label, With These Hands. Introducing 11 new compositions (including "Nickel and a Spoon," on which Willie Nelson contributed supporting vocals), this CD justly gained Escovedo a larger audience, a trend that carried over to his 1998 release.
The aptly titled More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96 (Bloodshot), was recorded at five performance venues and captured Escovedo's onstage intensity as he reinvented nine originals from earlier CDs. The live album ranked high on numerous best-of-the-year lists nationwide, a retroactive wake-up call to a still largely oblivious public. But the recognition also offered something longtime fans didn't expect from such a prolific and personal songwriter: cover tunes. In a nod to early influences, Escovedo included a bluesy version of "Sway" from the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, plus a hide-your-kid-sister-and-lock-the-door treatment of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog."
More Miles Than Money laid the foundation for 1999's Bourbonitis Blues, Escovedo's first studio album to include covers. Surprisingly, they outnumber originals five to four, a fact that initially might prompt cynical speculation about writer's block or contractual obligations. But in its own moody way, Bourbonitis Blues is as much a thematically unified statement as any record Escovedo has ever made.
All nine tracks, regardless of who penned them, are, in Escovedo's words, "very close" to him.
"We didn't go into the studio to make a record, an album," says Escovedo. "We went in to cut just one song" (a Mick Jagger tune for a compilation CD). "But that session went so well that we ended up with seven cover songs." After lots of consideration, complicated by the fact that Escovedo "already had an album's worth of original material ready to go," he decided to trust his instincts. "We really liked the way that some of the originals worked with some of the covers, so we just kind of blended them together to make an album."
The strategy succeeds, mainly because the general subject is memory, a recollection of personal experiences. Escovedo has recently changed his lifestyle, too, causing him to see his past more clearly. "The record, in a way, is a farewell letter to drinking as I knew it," he says, acknowledging that Bourbonitis Blues also alludes to his alcohol-related bout with hepatitis.
"I Was Drunk" is one of the originals. "It sums it up, you know, as the lead-off track," Escovedo says. "It's not the title song, although it really could be. It's about all those lost years, those years underneath the bottle." The lyrics are confessional and starkly witty: "I was bleeding, I was exhausted / I was suffering from the altitude / Picked up your scent and lost it / Then I suffered from your attitude."
On this and other numbers, cello and violin blend exquisitely with guitar, bass and drum. The songs are highlighted by solos on both acoustic and electric guitar by Joe Eddy Hines. Beneath Escovedo's distinctive voice and verbal imagery, the sounds coalesce to make a kind of folk-based chamber music. These are the sonic wanderings of a postpunk poet who has survived fury, dissonance and excess to take an honest look at himself and to imagine what he can do with sounds and words, including those composed by his idols.
Escovedo acknowledges as his influences Lou Reed and John Cale, former partners in artistic mayhem in the avant-rock band the Velvet Underground. Bourbonitis Blues includes a bold reinvention of Reed's touching ballad "Pale Blue Eyes," one of the first pieces Escovedo mastered on guitar. Escovedo makes it his own, at one point harmonizing with the angelic voice of Kelly Hogan, who delivers the third verse in a poignant solo.
Among the originals on the CD is a stripped-down remake of "Guilty" (from With These Hands), here transformed into a "kind of a Ronnie Wood sound," says Escovedo, adding, "it's much Stones-ier now." There's also the distortion-heavy groove of "Everybody Loves Me," a song that was part of Buick MacKane's unpublished repertoire. "We used to do it much faster, of course. And now we just kind of slowed it down, made it a little sleazier."
But the grittiest track on the album is "Sacramento and Polk," a composition inspired by memories of living in transient hotels in San Francisco, "along with a lot of people who had been released from institutions." It opens with an acoustic guitar arpeggio that suddenly gives way to an ominous bass line, over which a narrative is shouted, spat and otherwise delivered in a diatribe both fearful and menacing. The strings are also in full-attack mode, repeating a furious riff over and over and over. It's vintage Escovedo: symphonic punk rock for articulate adults.
Such a number, like the choice of cover tunes, says where Escovedo comes from, both musically and otherwise. Bourbonitis Blues is a personal disclosure of a past simultaneously tortured and inspired by booze. "I don't drink anymore," Escovedo says. "But the memories are vivid, pretty fresh. I feel like I've still got a lot to say."
Alejandro Escovedo performs Saturday, June 12, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8 p.m. (smoke-free) and 10 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (713)528-5999.
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