Alejandro Escovedo’s animal instincts

Alejandro Escovedo performing a cover of Moot the Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes.”

Alejandro Escovedo is a man of many encores. He was a punk rocker whose band The Nuns opened the final concert ever played by the Sex Pistols in the late ’70s. Then he was a member of the seminal cow-punk outfit Rank and File, hopped over to guitar-drenched rock with True Believers and then began embarking on a string of discs under his own name that would earn him Artist of the Decade honors in 1998 from the small but well-respected alt-country, DIY publication No Depression.

And that’s just the beginning of the story.

Escovedo’s last two records — “The Boxing Mirror” from 2006 and this year’s “Real Animal” — are the best of his long career, unearthing music that is self-assured and versatile to the brink of virtuosity and molding it to an ambitious conceptual framework.

Escovedo came very close to death in 2003 from an untreated case of hepatitis, and while that glimpse at mortality is directly referred to only occasionally on “Boxing,” the sense of struggle and relief permeates the disc. Producer John Cale (Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Patti Smith) gets the mix of chamber-light strings and string-driven rock just right and Escovedo’s lyrical prowess had never been better.

Revisiting his checkered journey
Until “Real Animal.” An encore of encores, its baker’s dozen songs revisit various stages of Escovedo’s checkered journey. Escovedo is touring behind the material, and will appear tomorrow night at the Fine Line. Some titles are self-explanatory, such as “Chelsea Hotel ’78” (Escovedo was a resident when the girlfriend of Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungen, was murdered there 30 years ago from last Saturday), “Chip n’ Tony” (the name of the Kinman brothers from Rank and File), and “Nun’s Song.” Ironically, Escovedo says this autobiographical collection of songs couldn’t have been accomplished without the disc’s co-writer, Chuck Prophet, and producer, Tony Visconti.

“With Chuck, I had a foil who wasn’t going to allow me to get away with anything that wasn’t completely realized,” Escovedo says of Prophet, who has released some pretty strong records in his own right. “I sat there with a hand-held tape recorder telling story after story and he would have the same frame because he was in a lot of bands and did a lot of surfing [an Escovedo passion], so even if he was younger, he understood the whole vibe. It made it easier for me to open up about what happened in my life. So then when we wanted to do a song about The Nuns or something, we’d go back and pick out stories from the tape. In that sense it was a true collaboration.”

Like Cale before him, Visconti had previously produced a lot of Escovedo’s heroes, most notably David Bowie and T-Rex. “Tony is very compassionate and warm and he’s also a musician who has been doing it a long time as a bass player and guitar player and some of the adventurous things he does with vocal harmonies and strings,” says Escovedo. “I struck a really strong bond that I didn’t feel I ever had with any other producer.”

No middle ground
Not coincidentally, the rock songs on “Animal” have a particular allure this time out, refusing to broker any middle ground between depth and vigor. “Always A Friend” contains a heartland chorus that should make it a hit single (but if Escovedo had a nickel for all the critics who have either predicted his commercial breakthrough or lamented its absence, he’d be independently wealthy), and the sorta title track, “Real As An Animal,” churns with a beguiling ferocity made all the more believable by its iota of restraint. 

Here is “Always A Friend” off the new disc:

And here is “Real As An Animal” at the NO Jazz Fest:

“I definitely have a love of this primal animalistic music, this true rock and roll music with whole sexual abandon and anarchy involved,” Escovedo concedes. “All the people I admired as songwriters — Townes [Van Zandt], Iggy [Pop] — possessed that innate lifestyle, where their lifestyle related to the songs they wrote. I believe it has a lot to do with the way I see life. You know, punks say that punks make their own; that pioneering spirit and constant refusal to take no for an answer. For us in music, when radio sucked, we made our own club. Don’t expect the government or somebody to come in and do it for you. That’s not rock and roll. It’s like, you don’t surf to become an athlete.”

Core transcends style and pace
You surf because you love it. Ditto rocking out. That’s why Escovedo is so popular among music critics, who hear a lot of music and crave (and recognize) unstrained sincerity. There is an organic core to the music Escovedo plays that transcends style and pace. A pretty ballad laden with strings, like “Swallows of San Juan” on the new disc, isn’t disruptive to the overall flow when he puts the anarchic murk on pause. The passion in his straightforward expression takes care of the continuity.

I caught Escovedo and his sterling band (starring guitarist David Pulkingham and violinist Susan Voelz) at Summerfest in Milwaukee over the Independence Day weekend this summer. In concert as on his records, it isn’t the initial impression that snags your loyalty, but the way different riffs and lyrics linger long after the music has stopped.

“You know, I set out to tell the story, first of all,” says Escovedo, describing the process behind “Real Animal.” “It was one of those records that was a delight. I didn’t have any idea of time; it went by so easy and enjoyable.”

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