Various Artists – Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo
Before he got sick in 2003, Alejandro Escovedo often lamented in interviews that he couldn’t understand why no one else recorded his songs. The reason was obvious: His sound — a peculiar melange of punk rock, chamber music and corrida that sounded like a Norteno version of the Velvet Underground — was so original, so distinctive that no one could imagine his songs apart from their arrangements. A similar fate had befallen Brian Wilson and George Clinton, whose songs were not covered as often as they deserved because their sound was so sui generis.
But when Escovedo collapsed from hepatitis C complications shortly before an Arizona show in 2003 and a tribute album was organized, his friends were forced to disconnect the songs from the sound. And, lo and behold, they discovered the songs were so well-written that they didn’t depend on any particular arrangement. Loud or soft, with or without strings, grungy or rootsy, these melodies and stories still work; they still get at that “2 AM” moment when every assumption about work and love begins to wobble.
Like almost every tribute project, this two-CD, 32-song set is wildly inconsistent in sound and in quality. But the best interpretations — and I’d say five of the cuts are brilliant, while another sixteen are strong — support the argument that Escovedo’s songs can be interpreted any number of ways.
Charlie Musselwhite turns “Everybody Loves Me” into a Chicago blues; Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons turn “Broken Bottle” into chamber music for children; Alejandro’s older brother (Santana alumnus Pete Escovedo) and niece (Prince alumna Sheila E.) turn “The Ballad Of The Sun And Moon” into mainstream Latin pop; M. Ward, Vic Chesnutt and Howe Gelb turn “Way It Goes” into a hootenanny folk song…and it doesn’t matter. The melodies are still seductive; the stories are still compelling.
Escovedo is often underrated as a lyricist because he doesn’t use the florid metaphors of a Bob Dylan or a Smokey Robinson; instead, he distills his language down to phrases that sound like fragments of a fuller chorus. Then, like Bob Mould or Neil Young, he uses the gaps between those juxtaposed fragments to supply the meaning. This is a dangerous strategy, for it’s all too easy to throw phrases together that have no real connection (cf. Michael Stipe and Jay Farrar).
But in Escovedo’s case, the ellipses really do contain implied links, and in discovering them, we glimpse into the abyss separating a line such as “It’s like a circus here, step up and take your shot” from “But there’s no winners here.” Just listen to how good Farrar sounds when the reconvened Son Volt applies its trademark drone to a song as well written as “Sometimes”, or when Stipe’s R.E.M. bandmates, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, team up in the Minus 5 to tackle “I Was Drunk”.
Jon Dee Graham and Javier Escovedo, Alejandro’s bandmates in the late, great True Believers, deliver inspired versions of “Helpless” and “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over”, respectively. Bryan Standefer, Al’s cellist of choice for the past ten years, co-produced and soloed on the chamber-Tejano versions of “Inside This Dance” and “Thirteen Years” by Rosie Flores and Ruben Ramos, respectively. Lenny Kaye transforms Escovedo’s San Francisco song, “Sacramento & Polk”, into a quintessentially New York song, full of spooky, spiky drug-paranoia guitar. Caitlin Cary delivers the album’s best vocal on “By Eleven”.
Usually a tribute album is all about influencees acknowledging their influencers, but Por Vida offers the disorienting experience of mentors paying tribute to a protege. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale and Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, cited by Escovedo himself as prime role models, deliver two of the more powerful tracks on Por Vida: Cale’s stately take on “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and Hunter’s rollicking romp through “One More Time”. It’s almost as if you can hear their influence on Escovedo amplified and rebounded back to them.
When he got sick, Escovedo was working on a new album with producer Chris Stamey, and two of those songs show up here. Stamey performs one of them, “One True Love”, cloaking the title line with glorious pop-rock harmonies but admitting in the verses that love was the last thing he was looking for. Escovedo himself sings the album’s final track, “Break This Time”, a Stones/Stooges rocker about seeing trouble coming his way, as it always has before. This time, though, he resolves not to break under the pressure.
He sounds convincing, and maybe he will re-emerge to write a new chapter in his career. In the meantime, we have Por Vida, evidence that his songs will outlast his own time and his own voice.