Austin Legends: Alejandro Escovedo


Photo by Marina Chavez

I have noticed since moving to Austin that there are certain artists who receive significantly different responses from Texans and non-Texans. Some artists are legends within Austin, or Texas as a whole, but haven’t made quite the same impact on the country as a whole. These artists can be intimidating for those of us who haven’t grown up with them because they are so revered – or at least well-known – to the natives, and no one takes the time to explain them to us. So I’d like to continue our Austin Legends series that gives us non-natives a starting point for some of the seminal figures of the Austin music scene.

I have the sort of job where I can listen to whatever music I want all day long. Yesterday I spent the entire day listening to Alejandro Escovedo, because….because I can. His new album, Big Station figures to be a favorite for this year’s Austin Chronice Austin Music Awards – thanks to none of this site’s readers. So what are we dealing with? Who is this Alejandro Escovedo guy, and should we hip, indie-loving young people support or decry his imminent year-end love? After 100 listens (thanks,!) I feel qualified to share a few thoughts on this local legend. First let’s learn a bit about his roots.

The Slash Years by Rank and File

If you want to know where Escovedo’s current legendary status began, this is the disc you want to start with. (Note: True Believers isn’t on Spotify, but by all accounts that might be better. No one will ever know, though, since it’s impossible to hear anything that isn’t on Spotify.) Escovedo began his career as a punk rocker with the Nuns in San Francisco. They were one of the founding members of the Bay Area punk scene (which later included the Dead Kennedys), and their big claim to fame is opening for the Sex Pistols at the Pistols’ last show ever. There are few recordings from Escovedo’s time in that group, though. Check “Savage” and then move on. In the later 80’s, Escovedo joined Jon Dee Graham in True Believers and garnered a hell of a live reputation. As stated, though, due to that album’s absence from Spotify, I can’t recommend it to the casual listener.

That leaves this collection of the first two albums from Rank and File – Escovedo’s band between the Nuns and the True Believers. First is 1982’s Sundown, followed by 1984’s Long Gone Dead, and each is full of fantastic songs. They’re classified as a cowpunk band – fusing country and punk rock – and maybe it sounded kind of punkish at the time, but in hindsight they sound about as badass as the Proclaimers. Instead their rockin’ country just comes across as energetic, fun and remarkably proficient. “The Conductor Wore Black,” “Coyote,” “I’m an Old, Old Man,” “Amanda Ruth,” “Last Night I Dreamed,” and of course “Rank and File” are just some of the standout tracks on these albums that still sound fresh and exciting some thirty years later.

Solo Work

Escovedo began his solo recording career at the age of 41 and I am 27. My disclaimer, then, is that I (and by extension, many of this site’s readers) am not his target demographic. There is more in Escovedo’s solo catalogue that annoys me than appeals to me, but there are some gems. His first record is 1992’s Gravity, which, as the title suggests, is a rather somber affair. Yet there are some great tracks here. “Last to Know” builds gently and has a great refrain. “Paradise” is epic and stark (and seemed to be the inspiration for Green Day’s “When September Ends”) as it depicts a hanging. He only really rocks on “Oxford,” but it’s not that kind of album. Escovedo cultivates a consistent tone, even if it doesn’t always jump out and grab me as a listener. If you’re into No Depression-style alt-country or folk, you may feel differently, though.

Counterintuitively, it’s Escovedo’s later work that starts to connect with me more. Two standouts are the John Cale-produced The Boxing Mirror in 2006 and 2008’s Real Animal, produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex). The lyrical fragments and musical darkness of “Arizona” is moving, and emblematic of Boxing Mirror‘s overall more low-key tone, while “Always a Friend” kicks off Real Animal with a much more energetic rocker – presaging much of the rock that lies ahead. Both of these albums come after Escovedo recovered from a near-fatal bout of Hepatitis-C from 2003 to 2005, and the energy and commitment he throws into each album is probably related to that scare. If you want to hear something from before that period that still rocks, check “Castanets” from 2001’s A Man Under the Influence, which was also apparently a favorite of George W. Bush’s.

Big Station

So where does that leave Escovedo’s latest album? Honestly, this is my favorite of all his solo records. I’m a sucker for upbeat numbers, and this album is full of them. For the most part, Escovedo manages to avoid the old-guy-rocker traps of lecturing at us too much, or trying to hard to sound hip. Sure there are missteps (avoid “Bottom of the World” like the plague), but there’s a lot of greatness here too.

Grading on the aging rocker curve (Escovedo is over 60 now), the first two tracks – “Man of the World” and “Big Station” – rock pretty well. They’d sit nicely alongside anything from Bruce Springsteen’s fantastic Wrecking Ball. Third track “Sally Was a Cop,” however, is just a downright gem. Had I heard it last year, it easily would have made our year-end Best songs of 2012 list thanks to its insistent groove and easy melody. Deeper into the album, “Headstrong Crazy Fools” is a light-hearted lyrical tour de force that grows on you, while “Common Mistake” rips off Joe Jackson to sound positively New Wave.

I tried to avoid Alejandro Escovedo in my first couple of years here, because some of his music is sickeningly adult contemporary. But diving into his catalogue in the last two days has been somewhat refreshing. In some respects, I was justified in my initial conception. But I was also relieved to find that there’s so much more to Escovedo’s legacy. While he’s not going to become one of my favorite artists (as Robert Earl Keen did after the first of this series), I have a lot more respect for the man. Hopefully you do too.

– Carter Delloro