Alejandro Escovedo & The Sensitive Boys
“I can take a punch, I can take a swing,” sings Alejandro Escovedo on “Man of the World,” the opening salvo of Big Station, his new album on Fantasy Records. The two phrases well describe his 35 years as a musician and two decades as a solo artist, the sum of which attests to the redemptive power of rock’n’roll and the driving role that it has played in his life and art.
A stylistic synthesist who Rolling Stone notes “is in his own genre,” Escovedo casts his widest musical net to date on Big Station. The title can infer two meanings: A transit junction where journeys converge and then head off to new destinations, and a potent radio signal with an open playlist that brims with diversity and adventurous imagination.
The album begins with a blast of tongue-in-cheek bravado on “Man of the World” set to a shimmering meld of classic guitar rock and new wave bop. Themes of transition are the fulcrum for songs like the syncopated bounce of the title track and the ghostly march of “Sally Was A Cop,” which surveys the havoc wrought by Mexico’s drug cartels. A jazzy muted trumpet and saxophone weave through his rumination on love and determination on “Can’t Make Me Run.” Change, decay and Escovedo’s place in the world are explored in songs that touch down in the city where he has lived for decades, Austin, TX, as well as his nearby birthplace on, respectively, the Dylanesque “The Bottom of the World” and the dark-hued melodicism of “San Antonio Rain.”
He reflects on characters from his rebel past with searing tension on “Headstrong Crazy Fools,” while the specter of failed romance wafts through the airy “Never Stood A Chance” and “Too Many Tears” simmers with the friction of desire rubbing up against heartbreak. Rocking danceable grooves drive his existential questions on “Common Mistake” and the celebratory hedonism of “Party People.” Escovedo finally wraps up the set by splicing his Chicano roots with modernism on his first number sung in Spanish, “Sabor a Mi,” a classic Latin pop song from 1959 that has also been recorded by Vicki Carr, Luis Miguel, Los Lobos and many others.
As with his previous two albums, Escovedo collaborated with Chuck Prophet on most of the songs on Big Station. Likewise, it’s his third outing produced by Tony Visconti, known for his work with David Bowie, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and many others. “He’s like a member of the band by now,” Escovedo says of Visconti, who shares songwriting credit on two numbers. The album was recorded in Austin with his group The Sensitive Boys at its core alongside his backing singers Karla Manzur and Gina Holton, whose vocal accents, enhancements and harmonies weave spells throughout the disc.
“I love this record,” enthuses Escovedo, who points out that, in contrast to his many earlier inward looking songs, this time his view is primarily outward. After the stripped down guitar-driven attack on his previous album Street Songs of Love, with Big Station, “I wanted it to be about the words, vibe and atmosphere. Chuck and I went into this knowing we wanted to work with rhythm in a way I never had before.” The key to doing so in the writing stage was a Roland TR-808 drum machine popular with hip-hop, R&B, house and electronic dance music artists and producers. “We’d find real deep simple grooves. He’d get on bass, I’d get on guitar and we’d jump around making fools of ourselves. I wanted things to rock, but in the way that Bo Diddley rocked – very rhythmically.”
At the same time, Escovedo drew from the AM and FM radio music of his youth, the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Brit-rock that has long been a touchstone for him, and the early years of punk and new wave, when he first began performing music. Artists such as New York late-‘70s art-punk duo Suicide, Joe Strummer and his post-Clash band The Mescaleros, Mink DeVille and Algerian singer and activist Rachid Taha provided some of the musical strain that fed into the process as Escovedo wrote the album’s songs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Austin. And what he created reflects as much where he is going as where he has been and its impact on him. “I envision the Big Station as being about where we come from and where we end up,” he says. “If you listen to the album all the way through it will take you from one place to another.”
Escovedo’s solo recording career began in 1992 with Gravity, hailed in its very first review by the Austin Chronicle as “a near perfect album of stunning originality… some of the greatest music to be found anywhere and anytime.” Such consistent unstinting praise has marked every release that followed through to Street Songs of Love, described as "ageless rock’n’roll” by the Washington Post and “required listening” by the New York Post. It’s no wonder that veteran Rolling Stone critic David Fricke pondered some years ago: “What does it take to make this man a star?”
But stardom has never been the motivation or the goal for Escovedo, who has relentlessly followed the spirit of his muse and his love for the music in a creative and personal journey marked by struggle, trials, rebound and triumph. He was raised in Southern California in a very musical family with a father who played in mariachi bands and older brothers Coke and Pete making their mark as noted percussionists in such pioneering Latin rock groups as Santana and Azteca.
In his teens Alejandro was a devoted surfer by day who spent many of his nights going to rock’n’roll concerts. “I went to every show, bought every record, read everything I could,” he recalls. It wasn’t until he was in college in San Francisco that he started playing guitar and formed a group with some friends for a student film he was making about “the worst rock’n’roll band in the world.”
They became The Nuns, a seminal act in the burgeoning San Francisco punk scene who opened for The Sex Pistols on the final date of their ill-fated 1978 U.S. tour at Winterland. He went on to play guitar in Rank and File, whose post-punk rocking twang presaged the rise of Americana and alt-country a decade or so later. The band eventually landed in Austin, Texas, where Escovedo started a hard-charging roots rock group, The True Believers, with his younger brother Javier and singer, songwriter and guitarist Jon Dee Graham. The group’s ill-starred run saw them debut with a well received album on EMI Records only to be dropped from the label on the eve of the release of their follow-up (both were later issued in 1994 on CD by Rykodisc in one package titled Hard Road).
On Gravity Escovedo fashioned a stunningly high standard of open ended, all embracing musicality and literate, heartfelt lyricism, and has continued to enhance and expand it over the nine studio albums that followed prior to Big Station. Some have explored themes both implicit and explicit like the end of a marriage and his estranged wife’s suicide (1994’s Thirteen Years), life and mortality (The Boxing Mirror in 2006, which followed a near fatal bout of illness from the effects of Hepatitis C four years earlier), and his personal and musical autobiography (2008’s Real Animal). His 2002 release By the Hand of the Father recounted the struggles of first generation Mexican-American men like his father in songs written for a theatre work inspired by his music that premiered and played in Los Angeles to high acclaim and toured North America.
Throughout it all Escovedo has suffused his songs with his hard-won personal experience, an enduring spirit of positivity, potential and faith, an intertwined mix of mature wisdom and perpetually youthful spirit, and a panorama of inspirations gleaned from his lifelong devotion to rock’n’roll and a spectrum of related popular music styles. The result is a formidable legacy matched by a continually restless quest to draw in new and different dimensions and follow avenues of expression he has yet to explore. Even though Escovedo has earned just about any and every critical superlative possible over the previous two decades, he is never content to rest upon his laurels.
Big Station is informed by the feelings evoked “when you survive and come up, like when you’re surfing and you get your butt kicked by a wave and nearly drown,” he explains. “When you surface you’re just exhilarated, and the sun and the water and everything are so beautiful. And scary. You feel wired and powerful, like ‘I can do anything now.’ It’s that power that I feel now in my music, and for the first time in my life I feel so comfortable with myself and my songs and making records.
“With every record you gain confidence and I’ve made a lot of them,” says Escovedo. In both his life and creative pursuits, “I’m more relaxed, and not so anxious to beat on people’s doors. I’m still searching, still dodging bullets. And my music is still mutating, which is the cool thing about it.”
“It’s been quite a movie,” reflects Escovedo on his past and where it has brought him to now. Along the way he has been guided by two principles. “My father taught me that if you’re consistent and present yourself in a good way and work hard hard hard, eventually people will notice without you having to make a big bang.”
Ultimately he has continued to creatively thrive by following a basic guiding precept passed to him by his older brothers: “If it’s all about the music then let it be about the music,” insists Escovedo. By doing so he has served his music well while it has at the same time carried and comforted him through life’s turns and travails. As a result his listeners reap a bounty of all but incomparable richness, depth and emotional impact from a truly great American musical artist.
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