Various artists

If Alejandro Escovedo's life has been an open book, then his music has provided the soundtrack--chapters of which recount his father's moving north from Mexico and his ex-wife's suicide in 1991 and his divorce from his second wife in 2001 and his being diagnosed with Hepatitis C last year. You can no more separate his life from his art than you can his heart from his chest. Having bad stuff happen to you, again and again and again, is a hell of a way to find inspiration; it gives new meaning to the phrase "concept album," absolutely. No matter how brilliant his songs, these chamber-punk-rock-a-country beasts that willfully defy classification have always worked best within the confines and context of the whole. It seems a hopeless prospect to reduce Gravity and A Man Under the Influence and By the Hand of the Father to salvageable parts when the sum is some kind of overwhelming.

How, then, can 30 disparate artists, from Cowboy Junkies to John Cale to the Jayhawks to Lenny Kaye to Ian Hunter to cousin Sheila E., make sense of the songs when they're left to fend for themselves? Pretty easily, turns out. Not so surprisingly, they do a bang-up job when forced to interpret the work without benefit of perspective, but aren't all great musicians just actors inhabiting a role? As these things go, Al Escovedo's a great part to play--beat-up, beleaguered and beloved genius without a façade--and all the participants involved play it straight. Like the man himself, they go to the heart of the songs and wring those bastards dry, most notably the influence (John Cale), the influential (Faces' Ian McLagan) and the influenced (Caitlin Cary). It's a record nobody really wants to exist; like those old Sweet Relief comps intended to raise dough for sick musicians without insurance, it's there to help a talented sick man pay his mounting bills, which is hellish inspiration. But there's the rub: What's a great Al Escovedo album without a sad story behind it?