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Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror
Back Porch, 2006
Commercial success will forever elude Alejandro Escovedo so long as he
persists in playing musical chairs with his style and neglects committing to
an easily pegged, radio-friendly aesthetic. Throughout the Texas-born
artist's three decade (and change) career, Escovedo's done punk, roots-rock,
country, Tejano, folk, and blues, with little concern for cultivating a
particular sound from which a reliable (read: profitable) fan base can be
built. Come on, Alejandro, having a successful career is measured in dollars
and cents, not critical accolades and peer respect. Everyone knows that.
Compounding matters, on The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo's first album
By the Hand of the Father, he's employed John Cale, the
Michael Jackson of pop obscurity. When it comes to stylistic ADD, Cale far
outstrips even the formidable Escovedo. Tsk, tsk, tsk -- you're just asking
to be underpaid, aren't you Alejandro? Playing 500-seat halls when you could
deliver an irresistibly catchy pop ditty and multiply the headcount
fivefold. It's not like you've had the highest profile the past few years,
what with nearly succumbing to hepatitis (a seriously bad career move, by
the way) and having to rely on a “tribute” album to pay the bills. Fans
don't want to imagine their musical heroes ill or struggling to get by; it
just depreciates the whole rich and famous façade. Cribs won't be
calling anytime soon, that's for sure.
Thanks to the lethal cocktail of Escovedo with a Cale chaser, The Boxing
Mirror jumps from one sound to the next with barely a hint that the term
“continuity” exists for a reason. “Arizona” is one of those moody,
self-reflective pieces with too-intense lines like “I turned my back on me /
And I faced the face of who I thought I was” as a cello and keyboard create
a suitably weighty atmosphere. All of a sudden, however, guitars come
ringing to life, like a wakeup slap to a nearly unconscious person.
Alejandro, don't you know it's not polite to arrest the delicate senses of
listeners like that? Play nice!
“Dear Head on the Wall” only increases the unhinged vibe, with its manically
racing strings and pointedly surrealistic observations like “The softness of
knowing hurts.” The mad guitars return on the frenzied “Notes on Air,” where
a “buck from the sky” recalls the too-clever “dear head” from the previous
track, with Cale's production like some emboldened animistic force hard at
work behind the scenes.
Thankfully, we get a respite with “Looking for Love” (formerly called “One
True Love”), a (comparatively) straightforward pop tune that might, just
might, prick the ear of discriminating program managers in mid-sized markets
looking to shake up the payola-list. Escovedo then does a 180-degree turn
with “The Ladder,” a gorgeous tribute to his Mexican heritage that might
excite some south-of-the-border aficionados but is a tad too “exotic” for
morning drive-time dial-spinners. True to hurly-burly form, these two soft
pieces are followed by the hard-rocking “Break This Time,” which naturally
gives way to the heartfelt “Evita's Lullaby” -- written for Escovedo's
mother after her husband's death. Catch your breath, as we're back to a fast
tempo courtesy of “Sacramento & Polk,” a song that originally appeared in a
more ragged form on 1999's Bourbonitis Blues.
The Boxing Mirror closes with the painfully elegiac “Died A Little
Today,” two mixes of “Take Your Place” (one bouncy and danceable, the other
roughhewn and honky tonk-ish), and a title track featuring martial drums
offset by some lovely piano. Whew! It's a career's worth of genre-hopping
condensed into a tidy, fifty-minute package.
If consumers didn't know better, they might think Escovedo had little
interest in reaching the top of the charts, garnering lucrative endorsement
deals and ditching artsy-fartsy hacks like John Cale for real money-makers
like Glen Ballard. Okay, time for a 180 of our own: If we're lucky, Escovedo
will never give in to such temptations and become a bona-fide “success.”
Besides, with an album as inspiring and masterful as The Boxing Mirror,
he's better off sticking to what he does best and leaving the hits to the
latest batch of one-trick wunderkinds.
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