Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

Back Porch/Manhattan Records ■ 50999 5 824111 1 9

Released June 10, 2008

Produced and Mixed by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario McNulty
Assistant Engineering by Tim Price
Mastered by George Marino


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Always a Friend
  2. Chelsea Hotel ’78
  3. Sister Lost Soul
  4. Smoke
  1. Sensitive Boys
  2. People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
  3. Golden Bear
  4. Nuns Song
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Real as an Animal
  2. Hollywood Hills
  3. Swallows of San Juan
  4. Chip n’ Tony
  1. Slow Down
  2. Falling in Love Again
  3. I Got a Right

I could completely obscure how I know the name Alejandro Escovedo, but that would really just be disingenuous, wouldn’t it? Truth be told, he does a duet with one Ryan Adams on Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac–one of my favourite records in the world–on a track called “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. A snide reviewer once noted that Adams’s music was inferior and a listener might be better off with Escovedo’s, seemingly unaware of this connection or, I later found out, a bit of a friendship between the two. That interview was what really pushed me to check Escovedo out for himself: in it, Adams said Escovedo shared an “outsider’s” perspective on love, being less defined by it than most and thus able to record it that much more acutely, in a strange way. He mentioned a song (“She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), referencing it as astonishingly sad and evocative emotionally–which was something that appealed to me a lot in Adams’s stuff, particularly that which he did with Whiskeytown.¹

I was out on a business trip in Iowa and Nebraska, which meant a lot of trips to the record stores in Omaha, where I found quite a few things of interest (to the point that I started to stress the space I’d quite deliberately left in my luggage for music to come back with me). One of those “things” was Real Animal: Escovedo’s third-to-last album at the time (back in June this year), on sale and predating the CD I’d picked up just previously but not much listened to (2010’s Street Songs of Love).
Between his appearance in Whiskeytown and his solo-named recordings (though he apparently also works in and “as” a few bands like Buick Mackane and Rank and File, as well as being in other bands over the years), I already had an itchy feeling this was an artist who would appeal to my father (who provided me with my first Whiskeytown album), and the fact that he’s from Texas–like my father–just furthers the notion. Even if he is associated most with Austin, the most atypical of Texas cities. Listening to the record (and being pushed by it into finally giving Street Songs of Love some spins), I’m still left pretty strongly with that impression–though there’s plenty of chance that he already knows him.
Anyway, the record starts with a nice rocker of a track, and possibly (maybe) my favourite on the whole record: “Always a Friend”. It’s a stuttering, staccato, jerky but warmly toned lone guitar that is suddenly embraced by the much softer tones (but voluminous and bright) of a string section and the rest of Escovedo’s band. “Wasn’t I always a friend to you?” Escovedo asks, then repeats it, his voice rising on the last two words this time. It’s a some what self-deprecating character: “I don’t care if I’m not your only one/What I see in you, you see in me/But if I do you wrong/Smoke my smokes/Drink my wine/Bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find”–the list comes out a capella and half-spoken, before the punchline comes, emphatic and frank: “Still be your lover, baby!” It’s not that he seems to shrug at these things, or plead, or anything so much as state the facts of his case: she can do wrong, so can he, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s the two of them, no matter what. A bit more realistic, perhaps, than most works that operate on that notion, and a damn fine song for that fact.
Escovedo begins to touch on his punk history (he was in the Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show) with “Chelsea Hotel ’78”–in which he indeed lived at the time. He ties it, of course, to fellow occupants of that hotel, most especially the most famous of the time: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Throbbing riffs sit uneasily beneath his descriptions of a near-mythological time and place, until they culiminate in a half-shouted chorus shot through with the sound of hands thrown into the air–“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense…” He has probably tied bits and pieces of that time together in ways that don’t match reality, but that is only that much more sense (ahem) considering the song’s overall tenor.

Finally dropping the mood if not the tempo, “Sister Lost Soul” is another excellent run: a very 60’s intro of pounding drums punctuated with an emphatic and loud snare hit that is let ring and echo for just a moment gives way to a much less dramatic and loud set of verses. Escovedo’s voice is calm and easy, describing the world in dark but fatalistic terms: “Nobody left unbroken/Nobody left unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are.” He manages to sneak in one of my favourite images ever, too: “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk,” before closing it with the line that defines the need for the song’s pleading chorus: “Only reminds me you’re not coming home.” In contrast to the raw confusion and chaos of the prior track, the pleas of the chorus stretch and wave across Escovedo’s voice: “Sister lost soul/Brother lost soul/I need you…” the economy of syllables letting that much more emphasis rest on each.

Apparently uninterested in letting an album that references his past slow down too much, “Smoke” is another chunk of rawness, riffing, and steady up-tempo drums. A blazing guitar lead winds its way across the top, riding high on bends and little twists and turns of the primary riffs and melody that are cool and familiar in that purely “rock” sort of sense. Susan Voelz contributes her violin to the track in a way that seems to glue the guitar to the rest of the track that much more perfectly, be it the lead or rhythm. They blend and blur around each other, following in such a way that uncareful listening can easily lead to the conclusion the violin is just a strange sound of playing from the guitar.

The second side of the record finally drops not just the mood but the tempo–perhaps logically, with a title like “Sensitive Boys”. Hector Munoz’s drumming doesn’t really shift into light playing, just lighter–there’s no betrayal of the record’s rock leanings here. The tenor of the song is fascinating: it’s a mix of poking fun at the excesses of the “sensitive boys”, pining for their return, and just a touch of nostalgia given away when “they” becomes “we”. There’s a nice, appropriately quiet wash of noise when he sings, “Turn your amps up loud”, conveying the idea without overtaking the song, and managing to weave it in correctly. One of the most full instrumental sections on the record, the arranged strings dart in lightly here and there, and an organ-styled keyboard underpins it all with sustained chords. Brad Grable contributes his only sax tracks, with both a baritone and a tenor, taking on a solo to follow the relaxed but confident guitar one. It’s breezy, reminiscent of both rock balladry usage and the romantic kind–but not in that uncomfortably saccharine style, which may be where the song most benefits from its unusual tone.

“People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)” has a great swinging gait: Munoz’s drums groove and rock back and forth, while Voelz’s violin draws the low-slung lines connecting the beats, guitars traveling in jagged zigs along that same line. The whole track nearly stops for the chorus’s final repetition of “We’re only gonna live…” to let Alejandro clarify: “We’ve still got time…/But never quite as much as we think”. It’s not a warning, though, so much as paean to people in general, which he finally states at the end, giving a small list of types of people that the track fades out on, mentioning that he loves them.

Producer Visconti brings back the synthetic strings he previously used in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” in “Golden Bear”–that slight warble of high-pitched faux-strings, though with a much less central place in the track. Where in that track it established itself immediately as an auditory focal point, here it is just an accent on the more “standard band” framework of the track, though guitars are split between palm-muted and tightly played notes and sweeping pedal-reverbed open chords allowed to ring. The tightened corners of the verse are let slip completely for a cavernous unanswered question of a chorus: in the background, the rest of the group sings “Golden bear is burning down” in a crowded muddle that doesn’t emphasize the words and instead forms a bed for Escovedo’s drawn out rhetorical question: “Oh…why me?”

If you’ve been paying attention, the reason “Nuns Song” is titled what it is should be no surprise–and no, it does not have to do with the kind of habits that go on heads. The intro is spare and sharpened: pounding, barely restrained drums and tightly wound guitar repeating as Escovedo sings in his past: “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great…” A few more lines and that great call: “Kill it!” Alejandro yells, not to be heard enunciating by listeners, but to kick the band into gear–hey, even if the vocals were recorded last, doesn’t matter–and the restraints drop, Munoz pounding and then running across the toms to open the band, guitars wailing, background vocals more literally doing the same as they rip into the chorus. Now coiled again, the band is still more complete with strong violin laid across the top, lightly tapping keyboard lines (from Visconti, this time) and more present bass. When the chorus opens up again, it doesn’t have that great kick into gear, but a different kind, as it gives way to a buzzing and wild guitar solo. Much like “Chelsea Hotel 78”, the final portion of the track is chaotic lyrically, vaguely bizarre, but evocative–and backed by a searing, seemingly uncontrolled guitar solo that is eerie, unexpected, and yet entirely right.

The album doesn’t quite have a title track, but “Real as an Animal” is pretty damned close. A Stooge-like pounding, rocking intro doesn’t really lose its energy when the chorus hits, Munoz pounding on skins like an animal (perhaps even like Animal, now that I think about it…). Were it not for the more Americana-inflections of the chorus, this could easily have been a well-produced proto-punk style track. The chunky riffs and melodic rises are highly reminisicent, but that chorus (“La la la la yeah, animal…”) and its backed vocals give away the secret. Escovedo wrestles even the chorus back almost, though: he sidles the melodic vocals most of it uses into shouts of the song’s title, punctuated and clearly delineated words–“Real. As. An. A-ni-mal,” repeated as if a mantra to let his punk past restake its claim on the song.

Quite unexpectedly, “Hollywood Hills” has an intro of nothing but arranged strings that contrast fully with that previous track’s sonic struggle. When Escovedo enters, it’s only with clean guitars, and mostly solo strings. More strings join these sounds and make way for the chorus, which seems designed to fill out the song with grand declarations and the movement of a moment a chorus of voices would join: “Happiness can’t be bought or sold/You shared what you had/But you gave me your love…” It’s the kind of (rather mild, to be fair) crescendo that doesn’t betray the acoustic inflections of the track, but builds it up despite that. Somewhat naturally, it closes with just Alejandro and guitar again, fading naturally with quieter singing and playing, with a thoughtfully placed keyboard chord lightly dropped at the end as punctuation.

“Swallows of San Juan” opens with its chorus, and neatly defines not only the lyrical content but the song’s own feeling with its final lines: “Like the swallows of San Juan/I’m gonna get back…someday.” That present nostalgia, the kind of distant declaration that has only emotional weight behind it, no plans or clear intentions to arrive at it. While “Hollywood Hills” is more delicate, “Swallows” may be lighter, with its sustained keyboards and strings, an easy, tired gait–that wistful look backward that is backed by the conviction of nostalgia and real desire to return.

Semi-rockabilly drum pounding gives away the feel of “Chip n’ Tony”, which saws back and forth across the 1&2 3&4 thumps of Munoz’s drums. Even where the guitars fade back to make room for Escovedo’s voice, Munoz is relentless, giving the tracks just a little tinge of that Bo Diddley gait without really quite reaching it. It’s the kind of track that calls out for hand claps in its way, but smartly avoids them in this particular recording–it would have cut through the aggression of the track inappropriately, as the approach of this band and Alejandro’s voice already slices off just the right sliver of aggression to keep it friendly, and anything more would drop it into the wrong place.

“Slow Down” does exactly that: one of the handful of downtempo tracks, it’s quavering guitars and languorous pacing. Plucked strings tinge it with something brighter than the down-trodden tone of Escovedo’s singing. It’s the culmination of everything from before: “”Slow down, slow down/It’s moving much too fast/I can’t live in this moment/When I’m tangled in the past”. All the recitations of memories past, of life lessons and influences we’ve been played on the prior three sides are all the tangles of life Escovedo himself is reliving and reciting, trying to find his way to the present–a present that, in fact, was something new, in its way, to him. Not long before this, after all, he’d been ill enough hepatitis-C (incurring even a tribute album to cover medical expenses) to leave the present and future a question. All of this makes it the perfectly logical conclusion to the album–which it is, on compact disc and most digital formats.

However, exclusive to the vinyl, we have “Falling in Love Again”, a quietly romantic song, with flecks of passion infused into it. It’s an interesting and appropriate coda to the record, as if it is the epilogue announcing and explaining the search for the present and finding a place in it, maybe even a momentary cause for sifting through the past for the moments that are held and retained. It’s one of the more unique vinyl bonus tracks, in that it is simply not to be found in any other format I’ve ever seen–no compilations, singles, promos, digital releases [unfortunately for more portable formats, there’s not even a digital download included with this record] or anything, it’s only here.

More appropriate as “bonus” and “exclusive”, we close out side four with a cover of Iggy/The Stooges’ “I Got a Right”. It’s one of those historically muddled tracks, as the career of Iggy goes–the Stooges were recently dissolved, his drug addictions were short-circuiting his career, and he hadn’t yet left with Bowie to record his breakout solo records (most famously, I suppose, Lust for Life) when it was released, but it had been recorded years earlier anyway, and was one of many stop-gap releases attempting to keep his reputation (and sales…) alive. It was originally credited to “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”, the latter being the latter-day Stooges guitarist who entered after 1970’s Fun House, pushing former guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and who then came to define much of 1973’s Raw Power guitar sound (the record being originally produced by David Bowie). As such, it may be the perfect choice to follow discussions of the past and their interminglings with the future, by revisiting the time more completely in covering a song from the early 70s, though one released near the end of that decade. Escovedo and crew do it serious credit, with Alejandro straining his voice to reach the snarling sneer of Pop while not giving up his own identity, and Visconti’s strings (!) enhancing the track in an unexpected way for such a raucous classic.

Other than my brief “cameo” introduction, this was my first experience of Escovedo–certainly, then, my first experience of him as solo artist. I’ve begun to gather many more releases in the time since then, including Bloodshot Records’ release of A Man Under the Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition, which has a number of compilation and EP tracks attached in a similar fashion to those attached here, but does make them available for download (or at least, four years after release, did so for me after a quick e-mail–a service that renders me grateful and interested in dropping that little plug!). I’ve found myself revisiting a number of tracks from this release in the near-month since I first started writing this entry, before being delayed and distracted by work and the social attachments that come with it. I am definitely glad to have made this trip, and for the number of re-listens that drawn out writing time has given it. This is a damn fine rock record, which I heartily recommend checking out.

¹That interview, which is with both artists, is here on No Depression’s site (of course), from right around the release of Strangers Almanac, which, incidentally, I gushed over at my old blog. It has gotten interesting attention–the author of a DRA biography commented on it and has linked to it (!), and Caitlin Cary herself found it apparently rather flattering and invigorating, it seems (if, apparently, deceptive in its impression that they had carefully plotted the album or anything like that).
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