The second decade of the new millennium has proven to be a fruitful one for those that like themselves some rock and roll. Not punk rock, not alternative rock. Rock and roll. With two guitars, drum and bass. Maybe a keyboard here and there, but with nary a bit of lily gilding. New records from Glossary, Lucero and the Hold Steady made the early part of the 2010 pretty fabulous, but now that it’s summer, Alejandro Escovedo is bringing the heat, upping the ante with a record that may not just be the best in recent memory, but may very well be his best ever.
That is no small accolade. Alejandro Escovedo was born in Texas in the early ’50s to a musical family steeped in jazz and traditional Latin music. An early fixation with Mott the Hoople was coincident with the Escovedo clan relocating to California, where Escovedo immersed himself in the local rock scene, eventually decamping to San Francisco at the onset of the punk explosion. Joining seminal LA band the Nuns, he played some of the first Bay Area punk shows, including the first Ramones show and final Sex Pistols show at Winterland. The ’80s found Escovedo returning to Texas, more specifically Austin, where he founded two of the bands that planted the seeds of what was first the No Depression and now Americana movement of today. The first was Rank & File with the Kinman brothers, who made a big splash on Slash Records with stuff like “I Don’t Go Out Much Anymore”. The second was with his own brother, Javier, and the mighty Jon Dee Graham. Called True Believers, they were another band that bands like the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo kept an ear on while they were finding their own musical path.
Escovedo has released records under his own name since the early ’90s. His records earned a devoted following, but did little to trouble the upper reaches of the charts. Musically adventurous souls and fans of his previous outfits sought out his records and live shows with some fervor, but it took complications from years of battling Hepatitis C to put him on the radar of the average American. 2003 found Escovedo falling critically ill, racking up huge medical bills in the process. Like many of his ilk, he had no health insurance, but friends and fans from Ian Hunter to Rosie Flores came together to record a two record set called Por Vida that did much to offset his financial and professional setbacks.
After the dark catharsis of his John Cale produced return, The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo rode the momentum into a creative collaboration with Chuck Prophet and Tony Visconti called Real Animal. The Visconti connection proved to be a fruitful one. Having recently been given a clean bill of health, Escovedo came out swinging: guitars were more in your face and Bolan-esque hooks got bigger and bigger. Finally Hepatitis-free, Escovedo was looking and playing like a man half his age.
Visconti returns to helm the console for Street Songs of Love. Hearing the end result, let us all hope that the relationship between Escovedo and Visconti never sours, as it is reaping amazing results. Opening with the lead-off single “Anchor” (itself, a co-write with foil of recent years Chuck Prophet), Alejandro swings for the seats on Street Songs of Love. And more often than not, he connects.
“Anchor” deserves to be a big hit, as do a large number of the remaining tracks. Guest spots from Ian Hunter and Bruce Springsteen don’t hurt either. Escovedo work-shopped the songs that became Street Songs of Love over a two month residency at venerable Austin venue the Continental Club. New songs were introduced acoustically at every performance, three at a time, slowly mutating with every show into the big rock numbers that we find here.
While the songs are great, and Escovedo is no slouch on the guitar, much props should be given to his backing band. Dubbed the Sensitive Boys, the trio drives the songs like a truck, sometimes idling, but always steamrolling with horsepower to spare. Whether it be the fuzz bass hook of “Tender Heart” or the bizarre Paula Abdul-esque loop that propels “Street Songs”, these Sensitive Boys are no shrinking violets.
In an ideal world, Street Songs of Love would be topping the charts. Sadly, it’s not all that likely, but with the management magic of Jon Landau behind him and songs as good as those on Street Songs of Love, Alejandro Escovedo may finally be recognized as one of America’s finest musical treasures.