[15 June 2012]
Popular recognition has come later in life for Alejandro Escovedo. A true rock and roll veteran, Escovedo has built a long and steadily respected solo career that rose out of stints in ‘70’s punk-rock outfit The Nuns and ‘80’s roots revivalists True Believers. Drawing from his wealth of influences and experiences, he has released ten top-notch albums since 1992, each one showcasing varying musical arrangements and divergent stylistic tendencies that envelop the always first-rate songwriting. Escovedo’s stock has been gaining momentum with each recent release, as luminaries like Bruce Springsteen have collaborated with and championed his cause. Escovedo has also found two kindred spirits in producer Tony Visconti and fellow songwriter Chuck Prophet with which to partner in recent years. Big Station marks their third joint effort in a row, following Real Animal and Street Songs of Love and this one continues the trio’s shared appreciation of glam-rock homages, shimmering harmonies, and melancholy yearning.
The beauty of Escovedo’s work is its versatility. He is able to pull off many guises at once and this is well evident throughout Big Station. He’s convincing as a well-traveled troubadour with a bit of a chip on his shoulder: bringing authentically lived-in intensity to the rollicking album opener, “Man of the World”, sheepish ruminations on the common dualities of life to the ska-tinged strains of “Common Mistake”, and a cuttingly sincere old-man edge to “Party People”, where he tosses old attitudes of time well spent out the window and declares his intentions of finding happiness in more age-appropriate pursuits. A menacing tone permeates throughout the album’s lyrics, as Escovedo rages hard in “Too Many Tears” and brilliantly narrates a film-like chapter of life in “Headstrong Crazy Fools”.
Now for a complaint: As good as Escovedo is with these anthemic declarations of rock and roll power, he is just as good as a solitary confessional figure or ace storyteller and these are areas that his recent releases could use a bit more of. The haunting narrative of “Sally Was A Cop”, which tells the tale of a Mexican border town woman forced to join the violent drug wars (and interestingly bears a beat strikingly similar to Drive-By Truckers’ recent highlight “Used To Be A Cop”) and the plaintive longing of “San Antonio Rain” are prime examples of the production values suiting the song. Too often on Big Station the production goes for a large sound. There are a lot of female backing vocals and snappy syncopated beats scattered throughout the production, which have Visconti’s and Prophet’s fingerprints all over them as the styling mirrors their prior work more than it does Escovedo’s. While it also suits Escovedo well, it dulls some of the edges and pushes aside the country-tinged melancholia of a lot of his profound earlier work. Some of his best live performances came simply from the quietly intimate intensity generated from an acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and violin. These instruments are largely absent on the Visconti and Prophet collaborations. They sell Escovedo a little short and shoestring him into one similar style for too much of the album.
This may be picking a little too much at the details though, as it’s still a fine listen, and Escovedo is notorious for following a certain sound from album to album. The most recent three have gotten a bit too similar though, and the time may have arrived for a more stripped-down and unfiltered sound. As actively as Escovedo has been running the past few years, there will surely be more releases headed our way. Here’s hoping he strips it down a bit and brings a little more personal identification back to future affairs.