Monday, July 28, 2008

Music Review: Real Animals by Alejandro Escovedo

Back in April 2008, I enjoyed my fourth Bruce Springsteen concert. It was the Magic tour and it was magnificent. During the encore, Bruce introduced a guy I had never heard of: Alejandro Escovedo. Yeah, I'm a Texan but somehow, Escovedo's name had escaped me. They played "Always a Friend" from Escovedo's forthcoming CD, Real Animal. The song was good and, hey, if Bruce likes it, I'll at least give it a listen.

Come June 2008, the CD was released and, via, iTunes, I gave it a listen. Let me put it this way: I listened to the 30-second previews of all these songs...and bought the album. This CD was my first introduction to Escovedo's work and I don't think it'll be the last. Tony Visconti, producer of some of David Bowie's best material as well as T.Rex, produced Escovedo's CD and many of Visconti's influences show up.

Sonically "Golden Bear" seems like an outtake from Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" complete with drip-drop sound effects. Being unused to Escovedo's vocal stylings, "Chelsea Hotel '78" evokes early Elvis Costello who sang that he didn't want to go to Chelsea. The very next track, ""Sister Lost Soul," suddenly hearkens back to 1960s guitar-driven balladry. No sooner did we imagine dancing with a girl to "Sister Lost Soul" than Escovedo fast-forwards to the late 70s punk movement with "Smoke," whose guitar frenzy drives the song.

I did some research about Escovedo after I purchased the CD. One of his favorite musical accompaniments is a string quartet. Ironically, the first Elvis Costello CD I ever purchases was his foray into classical music, The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet. That interest, in turn, spurned my interest in string quartets of which The Turtle Island Quartet's tribute to John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, is but my latest love. All this is to say that Escovedo's "Hollywood Hills," a song with his string quartet, is one of the best tracks on Real Animal. For someone like me, who cherishes the eclectic in music, this CD is wonderful.

But the music is only half the story. Escovedo's lyrics provide this CD with its emotional foundation. Even knowing nothing about the man, I can listen to this CD and learn a lot about the graying rocker who joined Springsteen on stage in Houston. This is a work of autobiography via the music of America. It is a history of America for the past 30+ years as seen by a troubadour who constantly tours and has a unique vision to what this nation has become. At times mournful, at times jubilant, at times angry, this collection of songs is one of the best I've heard in a long time.

I think for long-time fans of Escovedo, this CD is a love letter to the times, events, concerts--the promise of youth crashing headlong with the broken reality of adulthood--of the past 30 years. You might even make the case that it's a thank-you letter as well.

But for folks like me, being introduced to Escovedo in 2008, this acts as an introduction. It is Escovedo saying to newcomers: "This is who I am. This is where I've been. This is my sound. I hope you like what you hear. If you do, join me. I've still got more roads to travel."

Count me in. Just give me a map.

Other readings:

Dave Marsh, a longtime Springsteen fan and journalist, has an excellent article via the Alejandrdo Escovedo website.

For Escovedo's recollections of his performance with Springsteen, check out a snippet of his interview at, nothing less than the best fan site/publication devoted to Bruce Springsteen. (NOTE: you'll have to page down a bit or search using these words: "I HAD NO IDEA WHAT WE WERE WALKING INTO...")

Escovedo will be on the David Letterman show on 7 August 2008 (via his website). For any Houstonians out there, Escovedo will be playing at Bend Studio on 22 August 2008. (all tour dates via his website)

To see Escovedo with Springsteen from the Houston show, Columbia has released "Magic Tour Highlights," a show digital compilation of four songs from the recently US swing of the the Magic tour. Along with Escovedo's song is "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," the late Danny Federici's last performance. Check Bruce Springsteen's website for the iTunes link.

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