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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Rawer Alejandro Escovedo

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During the first phase of his solo career, Alejandro Escovedo certainly made some fine albums. But if he has seemed even more inspired and more energized about his music over the course of the past half-dozen years, it's no coincidence. In a very literal sense, Escovedo got a new lease on life when he overcame a severe case of hepatitis C that sidelined him from music, at times left him too weak to walk and for a while had doctors believing he wouldn't survive. Since recovering from hepatitis, Escovedo has made what are arguably the four best albums of his 20-year solo career, including his new release, Big Station.

Escovedo says beating hepatitis C has played a big role in his musical achievements since entering the studio to make the first of the four albums, The Boxing Mirror, in 2006.

“After I was ill, it really did give me the sense that, you know, I was aware of the clock ticking,” Escovedo says. “And yet, at the same time, it was inspiring because it made me want to do more, experiment more, play more. I just had more joy in playing. I have more joy in my music now than I've ever had, which I think is important.”

That joyfulness and eagerness to experiment are readily apparent on Big Station. On his two previous albums, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, Escovedo stripped back to a four-piece band, plugged in, turned up the volume and delivered two stellar albums of high-powered, lean and highly approachable rock 'n' roll.

With Big Station, though, Escovedo thought it was time to shake things up. He did re-team with the two people who had played major roles in Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, his songwriting collaborator Chuck Prophet and producer Tony Visconti (known for his work with David Bowie). But his band shifted. His guitarist of many years, David Pulkingham, left to start a solo career and was replaced by Gabriel Gordon, and Escovedo parted ways with his longtime drummer, Hector Munoz, and replaced him with Chris Searles (who has recorded with Escovedo in the past).

“I did not want to repeat Street Songs of Love,” Escovedo says. “So with this one, Chuck Prophet and I, we wrote songs that were a little more rhythmic, I think a little more song-oriented than the last albums and maybe with a little more atmosphere and space in the material. So I think it's a great combination.”

That greater emphasis on acoustic guitar helps Big Station breathe more than his recent efforts, and adds considerable texture to the album. Still, the new album rocks frequently, as on ace tracks like “Man of the World,” “Headstrong Crazy Fools” and the title track.

Even with its space and texture, Big Station turned into a different kind of album than Escovedo initially envisioned. “It's interesting, if you heard the demos of Big Station that Chuck Prophet and I did together, it's a completely different album,” Escovedo says. “I really wanted like a more raw, kind of sparse feel to the record, and it turned out to be really kind of, in a way, one of the most produced albums I've made. But I think that's where, when Tony comes in, Tony Visconti, and starts working his magic, it always leads to a really beautiful place.”

Escovedo says Visconti helped to flesh out some of the spare character of the versions of the songs he and Prophet had demoed. Visconti also was very involved in arranging and recording the female harmonies that add color to many of the songs, as well as the horns that contribute to the haunting quality of “Sally Was a Cop” and “Can't Make Me Run.”

What Escovedo and Visconti avoided, though, was adding the kind of extensive orchestral parts that had been woven into songs on The Boxing Mirror and his excellent 2001 album, A Man Under the Influence, and that restraint will enable Escovedo and his band (Gordon, Searles and bassist Bobby Daniel) to better recreate the songs live.

“I think that's really important for me now,” Escovedo says. “I remember when I made my first solo record with [producer] Stephen Bruton, Gravity. And that was one thing he always really impressed upon me: that you've got to make records that you can play live—because a band like mine, we're all about being on the road. So we're a live band.”

Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys play the Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m. with opener Jesse Malin.
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