By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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"It's like comparing the different women you've fallen in love with," muses journeyman singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. "Some end up well, some not so well, you know?"
But Escovedo isn't talking about romance, per se—rather, he's ruminating over the bands he's played in, a theme that recurs throughout his latest album, Real Animal. A loose memoir of sorts, the album's subject matter and styles span Escovedo's 30-year musical career, touching on some key locations, bands and relationships that Escovedo has passed through along the way. His second album since a highly publicized bout with hepatitis C that nearly cost him his life, Real Animal sees Escovedo returning to a more rocking approach after his initial return to music with the (understandably) subdued atmosphere of The Boxing Mirror.
This time, aided by legendary David Bowie/T. Rex producer Tony Visconti and co-writer Chuck Prophet, Escovedo clearly sounds energized. He does indeed revisit some difficult memories and fills the songs with plenty of the sobering commentary that only a person who is wise from being wounded can offer. Still, Escovedo's voice carries at least a hint of celebration all the way down to the last track.
True, the album closes with the lyric, "I want to live in this moment/But I'm tangled in the past." But Real Animal provides that rare example of an artist self-consciously looking backward without damaging the integrity of his past accomplishments. Its life-affirming tone, moreover, suggests a late-life renaissance and says more about where Escovedo is going musically than where he's been. Sure, Escovedo and Prophet were eager to capture the fire of classic Mott the Hoople and Faces records. But as Escovedo swerves from, say, the jazzy elegance and ultrafine arrangement of a song like "Sensitive Boys" to the almost orchestral roots stomp of the next song, "People (We're Only Gonna Live So Long)," it's clear that Escovedo has distilled everything he's learned into a forward-thinking vision.
With so many open references to the past, however, the album naturally triggers a sense of "what was that like?" And, in a refreshing contrast to musicians who express irritation at talking about their older work, Escovedo expounds on it freely. Which is a good thing, as his career boasts many highlights that wouldn't be evident just from listening to this record.
For starters, there's Escovedo's first band, San Francisco punk outfit the Nuns, which gets immortalized on Real Animal in the form of "Nuns Song." Then there's the time Escovedo spent in New York City's fabled Chelsea Hotel, which also appears on Real Animal in the song "Chelsea Hotel '78." His next band, Rank and File, played what would later come to be referred to as "cow-punk" or "alt-country" long before such terms came into vogue—or even existed; that band rears its head anew on Real Animal in the song "Chip 'N' Tony," named after the band's songwriting nucleus, siblings Chip and Tony Kinman.
Which bring the whole thing full-circle, in a sense. On "Chip 'N' Tony," Escovedo discusses the sense of camaraderie that brought the members of Rank and File together. "All I ever wanted," he sings, "was a four-piece band." All these years and all these bands later (further along in Escovedo's career, those also included the True Believers and Buick MacKane), Escovedo still yearns for that sense of belonging.
"Being a bandleader's not all it's cracked up to be," he says, chuckling. "It's tough, because, in a way, you're not part of the band... When it's your name and you front the group, you're kind of—I don't want to say ostracized, but if there's problems in the band, they come to me like I'm the man. Whereas I don't want to be the man. I want to be part of the band. I want to hang out!"