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Alejandro Escovedo

There is no greater compliment a fan can pay an artist than to confess that he reaches one's most private core. Alejandro Escovedo has done so in the past for this writer, most notably on his 1994 epic Thirteen Years, a stark chronicle of tragedy, serenity, and bloody-minded resolve (much of it concerned with his wife's suicide and its aftermath). He does it again on his sixth solo album, A Man Under the Influence, which not coincidentally bears key resemblances to the earlier record. Musically both are populated by lush, inspiring string orchestrations and vibrant mood swings between gentle acoustic reverie and churning electric agitation. Thematically, too, Influence has some familiar Escovedo extremes: One song charts a beautiful courtship dance, another a wedding day, still another a downcast eulogy for a former mentor, and on several the stages of a relationship that's falling into tatters. Influence, however, is one of those "album-of-a-lifetime" efforts wherein not only does everything click, but a prevailing kissed-by-the-muses vibe oozes from the record's pores. Trust me; you'll sense it.

Significant is the fact that Escovedo had to leave his hometown digs in Austin, Texas, to paint his masterpiece. Recorded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with sonic wizard Chris Stamey at the board, a diverse cast of Carolinians (Mitch Easter, Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, and assorted Superchunk, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Backsliders members) pitched in. A case of the grass being greener in North Carolina than Texas? Not necessarily. Escovedo tends to thrive in collaborative situations. (This is a man, after all, who fronts his own large-scale Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra when the notion strikes.) Escovedo's band -- drummer Hector Muñoz, guitarist Joe Eddy Hines, cellist Brian Standefer, and multi-instrumentalists Mike Daly and Eric Heywood -- accompanied him on the trip; plus, the connection actually took hold a couple of years ago when Escovedo hooked up with Stamey to record a handful of tunes for 1999's Bourbonitis Blues. Listeners should be alert for some interesting Tar Heel cameos, however: 'Chunk's Mac MacCaughan oozing some creepy-swirly Moog groans on "Castanets"; Adams's backing vocals lining both "Don't Need You" and "As I Fall"; the three gals known as Tres Chicas (Cary, Tonya Lamm, and ex-Let's Active Lynn Blakey) weighing in with their own sweet/high-lonesome vocals in "Castanets"; and the combined punch of Easter and Stamey's guitars, Cary's fiddle, and Jon (Superchunk) Wurster's drums enlivening "Rhapsody."

Even when Escovedo is at his most traditional here (say, the old country waltz of "Wedding Day" or the twang-and-chime rock of "Velvet Guitar"), sparks fly well beyond the perimeters of what one usually associates with a roots/No Depression record. The first two cuts alone are sufficient to make Escovedo one of our preeminent songwriters: "Wave," a tale of migrants' travails as they cross the border and bid farewell to their homes (the song could stand for the American experience itself), is awash in swaying rhythms, a haunting atmospheric melody, and a harmony vocal hook that's positively Beatlesque. The Latin-flecked rhapsody "Rosalie" is a memorable romantic lovers' dance ("Let the world spin you closer to me/Take a chance on us, Rosalie") on a par with the great soul ballads of the '60s. Both narratives, interestingly, are also found in a current play that Escovedo scored and cowrote, By the Hand of the Father, which relates the stories of several Mexican-American males over the course of two generations.

Other songs have a more personal spin to them. The bare-bones cello/acoustic guitar number "Follow You Down" is a fragile remembrance of Escovedo's late idol Townes Van Zandt ("I've been hanging with the ghost/The cause of all this trouble"). It's hard not to listen to "As I Fall" without thinking about Escovedo's recent breakup with his wife ("... someone without you/Who placed a ring upon your hand..../The things I meant to say/All seem to slip away"); couched in gently burnished folk-rock terms underscored by weeping violin, pedal steel, and tremolo, its combined lyrical plaint and sonic elegance make it one of the most intensely emotional songs Escovedo has ever written. Closing number "About This Love," a riveting tune that's part neo-'50s pop and part country baroque, while also containing melancholy images ("It's all about this pain/It's all about the loss"), manages to strike a crucial forward-looking balance -- "It's all about the way/We break, to love again" -- that helps lead the listener away on a note of optimism.

Unique among his altcountry peers in the same way that Ani DiFranco is an anomaly of the avant-folk scene or Neil Young stands apart from his fellow '60s survivors, Escovedo has created one of those rare, out-of-time artifacts that references and incorporates a wealth of styles and influences to wind up an utterly unique, moving portrait of a man constantly in transition even as he clutches little scraps of inner peace. He's also one of those rare artists blessed with the capacity to reach inside the listener and touch something deep and primal.

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Fred Mills

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