Alejandro Escovedo: Real Animal

Back Porch Records

The greatest heroes of all are the ones unsung. They can be no less than glorious because the realm of their glory is the admiring mind. Essentially unchallengeable, the unsung are unbeatable. They derive much (and sometimes all) of their status in the individual imagination from their lack of status in the public arena. They are heroes in part because they are unsung, and to sing of them is to enhance one's conception of oneself as a unique creature blessed with special knowledge and superior judgment.

We all have heroes we treasure for being unsung. Me, I have the late bebop guitarist Bill DeArango, the cabaret singer Barbara Lea, the theater composer Mickey Leonard, and the genre-bending Austin songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, among others. It is with a weird combination of boosterish joy, a vain sense of vindication, and twisted feelings of loss and relief that I have been watching Escovedo suddenly, at the age of fifty-seven, rise out of the ranks of the unsung. After more than thirty years of writing, singing, and playing the guitar, recording on his own and as a member of various bands of several kinds, gigging in clubs and filling the mid-day lineups in music festivals, Escovedo is now doing the things that breakout stars do. He has a heavily promoted new album on a major label--Real Animal, released by Back Porch Records, a division of EMI/Blue Note--produced by the rock veteran Tony Visconti (best known for his work in the 1970s with David Bowie and T. Rex); and to plug it Escovedo appeared in June on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Today Show; and he has just finished a big-time arena tour as the opening act for Dave Matthews.

Last summer I saw Escovedo at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was accompanied by an arty quartet of two cellos, violin, and acoustic guitar (played by the wonderful David Pulkingham), with whom he had been performing, on and off, for several years. Escovedo and the group did a fine and varied set of tunes from his long career, including the lovely mariachi-ish ballad "Rosalie," which, as I recall a year later, Pulkingham and Escovedo did quietly, as a duet; and the harddriving "Castanets," the closest thing to a hit that Escovedo has ever had. (Thanks to Mark McKinnon, who is George W. Bush's media strategist, the song showed up a few years ago on what the administration described as the president's iPod playlist; with its country-rock vibe and its chorus about having an appetite for rejection--"I like her better when she walks away"--the song seems like one Bush might actually enjoy.) The set was ambitious and spirited, but it was not especially well received. In the press tent the next day, trying to fill in my notes on the musicians, I asked a few people if they knew the names of the chamber players in Escovedo's group, and more than one person responded by asking me who Escovedo was.

A couple weeks before the release of Real Animal, I caught Escovedo opening for Matthews at the Toyota Pavilion in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Before Escovedo played, Matthews came onstage to introduce him. He said that "a friend of mine named Steve Earle" first told him about Escovedo, thereby anointing Escovedo with impeccable alt-country associative cool, and he asked the crowd to welcome the man "everybody's talking about." Escovedo, performing with an electrified reconfiguration of his usual band (bassist, drummer, one cellist, a violinist, and Pulkingham, now playing mainly electric guitar), did a tight, solid show dominated by songs from the new album, including as "Always a Friend," a poppish trifle that Escovedo had performed with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Houston a couple of months earlier, and "Chelsea," an appropriately confused two-chord rant about Escovedo's youthful days in the Chelsea Hotel with Sid and Nancy. Although Daveheads are notoriously indifferent to everyone but Matthews, Escovedo got a huge ovation and did an encore of fifteen or twenty minutes. When Matthews came out for his own set, he said, "Now I know what Steve Earle was talking about," and even that secondhand reference to Escovedo got applause, though there is no knowing if it was for Escovedo, for Earle, or for Matthews's good fellowship.

With so much talking and singing about being friends, much of what has been going on with Escovedo lately feels like a rock-star version of Facebook. It has the same "if you like A, you'll like B" message as all those Web recommendation lists, which conflate the application of aesthetic judgment with the exercise of purchasing power, and which reduce the human response to art to an algorithmic function. That said, Escovedo is a musician who has earned the advocacy of his more famous and influential colleagues, however dubious their friendship may be.

There is a YouTube clip of Springsteen singing "Always a Friend" in concert with Escovedo, and it brings unnervingly to mind the video from 1985 of "You're a Friend of Mine," in which Springsteen's actual lifelong friend Clarence Clemons made like he was an old pal of Jackson Browne's. Clemons and Browne smiled and gazed into each other's eyes and sang nose to nose, while Browne's then-girlfriend Daryl Hannah lounged sultrily nearby, as if to douse any suggestion that the heretofore unknown friendship between Clemons and Browne was that special. Both videos of friendship around E Street have had overt strategies of marketing through association. In "You're a Friend of Mine," Clemons was trying to establish an identity apart from Springsteen without undermining his established appeal as a foil to a diminutive white man with a guitar; and Browne, a career wuss, wanted to be Springsteen. In the clip of "Always a Friend," Escovedo, a talented but idiosyncratic musician with a loyal but small following, found common musical ground with Springsteen in hopes of attracting some of Springsteen's gargantuan audience; and Springsteen seemed happy to endorse a real-life figure very much like the noble laborers and natives of the Tex-Mex borderlands whom he romanticizes in his songs.

Real Animal is the rarest sort of breakout album: a look backward at a lengthy career. It is not a compilation of old tracks, but a collection of new songs dealing musically and lyrically with Escovedo's earlier life and work. As he has made plain in interviews about the album, it is a rumination but not a valedictory. This is good to hear, because Real Animal is less than the strongest album in his catalog. Escovedo nearly died in 2003, and his health remains tenuous. A road dog who for decades made a living (or an approximation of one) in bars, Escovedo has worked and lived and drunk hard. One night before a performance in Tempe, Arizona, he began to vomit blood, but he went on and did the show. After the performance Escovedo collapsed, and he was hospitalized and diagnosed with advanced cirrhosis of the liver, as well as varices on his esophagus and abdominal tumors from untreated hepatitis C. For more than a year he was unable to play the guitar, and a regimen of interferon brought on premature aging and mental illness. Much improved now but not cured, Escovedo treats his condition with self-prescriptions of homeopathic remedies and work at his music.

I would hesitate to detail this medical history, for fear of subordinating the music to the narrative, were Escovedo's trauma not central to the work that he has made in recent years. Near the end of 2005, Escovedo recorded an album of songs dealing with mortality, fear, and his tools for survival, called The Boxing Mirror. "Have another drink on me," he sang in "Arizona," the potent lead track. "I've been empty since Arizona/I turned my back on me/And I faced the face of who I thought I was."

Produced by John Cale, one of Escovedo's youthful idols, the record brings to mind the noisy, endearingly affected pre-punk glam rock of the early 1970s-- the sound of the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, T. Rex, and Mott the Hoople. It is a style of music with enormous capacity for misuse, as Panic at the Disco and The Darkness have shown by appropriating glam for ironic effect. A style elementally ironic should not be adopted ironically; it needs to be employed with earnest conviction, as Cale did in his bluntly theatrical production of The Boxing Mirror and as Escovedo does in the gushing cover versions of Ian Hunter's "I Wish I Was Your Mother" and Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog," which he has performed many times in concert--as well as in the Bowie homage "Golden Bear" on his new album. Escovedo understands that the best way to do transgressive music is straight.

For most of the last couple of decades, Escovedo has been working in alt- country circles, strumming the acoustic guitar with groups such as his string quartet. Yet he started as a punk, singing in a San Francisco band called The Nuns (a group only vestigially connected to the burlesque Goths going by the same name today), the high point of whose career was playing on the bottom of a bill with the Sex Pistols in 1978, and much of the music Escovedo has made over the years has retained the spirit of that first band. Although he is sometimes associated with the cowpunk movement of the 1980s and 1990s, Escovedo has always made music more punk than cow.

Compositionally, Escovedo's songs are as simple and as formal as the Ramones'. He knows how to construct a verse with two chords, or only one--or none. Like punk guitarists, Escovedo leans heavily on fifths, near-chord constructions, to give the music qualities of incompleteness and instability. An Escovedo melody, much the same, is sometimes little more than one note-- usually the fifth tone in the scale, an echo of the music's fragile harmony. Sometimes the main note of the tune is a minor third sung over a major chord (or a suggestion of a chord), an effect that adds further to the atmosphere of unease in Escovedo's work. The music is elegantly suited to the themes of displacement, transience, and disaffection that occupy the words.

In its textures, if not its essence, Real Animal is the hardest-rocking thing Escovedo has done since he played in Buick MacKane, a side-project band (named for a T. Rex song) that gigged around Escovedo's native Austin and made one album, a certain classic in the genre of Tejano garage glam, in 1997. (Titled The Pawn Shop Years, the Buick MacKane record is available on iTunes, and it is worth downloading just for the six-minute noise-party cover of the Stooges' "Loose.") Tony Visconti, who helped to invent the sound that Real Animal emulates, keeps the music brisk and gleaming.

The songs on Real Animal, co-written with the San Francisco singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet, reflect from a distance on Escovedo's musical life, though they fail to do that life full justice. Indeed, much of the music is slick and conventional. "Nuns Song" remembers Escovedo's musical initiation; "Chip N' Tony" recalls his transition to cowpunk with the band Rank and File in the 1980s; "Sister Lost Soul" and "Smoke" both touch on the treacherous glories of the rock 'n' roll life (the former specifically centered on the death of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the band Gun Club). As a kind of commentary on Escovedo's past work, as notes for future listening, the album is useful. But as an example of Escovedo's music, it is decidedly not the real animal.

The high point for me is the song that inspired the album's title, "Real as an Animal," which, in the guise of an homage to Iggy Pop, celebrates the ferocity of spirit that has fueled Escovedo's music, once nearly killed him, and now keeps him going. Although Escovedo's voice has weakened and dried from wear and disease, he remains defiant as he sings of one of his heroes, and of one of mine.

David Hajdu is the chief music critic forNew Republic

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By David Hajdu