Alejandro Escovedo’s current bio begins with a quote from critic David Fricke inquiring how it’s possible that Escovedo is not yet a star.
The answers aren’t too hard to come by: Escovedo is a middle-aged man in an industry that glorifies youth, he’s not a particularly imaginative tunesmith, his songs don’t overflow with memorable hooks, and his plain, homely voice would get him instantly booted from American Idol.
What makes Escovedo stand out is the range and depth of his musical roots. He’s the lone tributary through which the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Ruben Ramos, and the Kronos Quartet all flow, and he’s absorbed his influences so thoroughly that his stylistic sidesteps never feel like shallow pastiche or genre exercises.
In live performance, Escovedo can be highly playful, but even in the best of times, he’s a relentlessly somber studio artist. And the four years since he released his musical-theater piece, By The Hand of the Father, hardly qualify as the best of times. Hepatitis C brought him to the brink of death, and medication rendered him weak and depleted for at least a couple of years. His health scare also required him to give up drinking and smoking.
The boxing mirror
(Back Porch Records)
The Boxing Mirror is an album Escovedo wasn’t sure he’d live to make, and he sounds like a chastened man on the opening “Arizona”: “I turned my back on me/and I faced the face of who I thought I was.” Escovedo’s wife, Kim Christoff, contributed to the writing of three tracks on the album, and her vivid imagery adds a surreal touch to Escovedo’s tough, linear approach. When Christoff’s lyrics meet the production brilliance of John Cale on the title song or “Deer Head on the Wall,” the results can be riveting. Escovedo also connects with the slow, understated “Died A Little Today.”
Unfortunately, some songs shoot for pathos and settle for dreariness, and the most daring production move, a groove-oriented dismantling of “Take Your Place” with Dirty Mind-era Prince synths, hits the canvas with a thud. But The Boxing Mirror is Escovedo’s first step into a new creative life, and it’s a welcome one.