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Punch Drunk Profiteer

 

Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror

Back Porch, 2006

Rating: 4.5

 

Posted: May 5, 2006

By Laurence Station

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. Right?

Compounding matters, on The Boxing Mirror, Escovedo's first album since 2002's 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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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