Alejandro Escovedo – Leave the light on, he’ll be home by 2am
Somehow, no matter where you live and what you do, it always comes back to family. I am visiting that place which is home but no longer home for the weekend, and my older brother is conducting an eloquent disquisition on the tannic properties of a 1986 Chateau Montellena Cabernet Sauvignon. Or, to put not too fine a point on matters, we’re getting likkered up, except it’s a wonderful $100 bottle of wine that’s still at least 10 years from its prime.
Anyway, there we sit at the kitchen table swirling fermented grape juice in crystal goblets when it occurs to me that the other thing we share in common is sitting in my suitcase, and soon enough Alejandro Escovedo’s third solo release, With These Hands, is conducting an eloquent disquisition all its own.
Big brother doesn’t hear it, no more than I made much sense of Frank Zappa’s Absolutely Free back when the roles were reversed and the work of opening ears was conducted along more formal generational lines. Listen, “2am” is the married-and-almost-happy version of Jesse Colin Young’s stone-cold “Four in the Morning.” And that’s Willie Nelson taking a solo and singing harmony on “Nickel And A Spoon.” He still doesn’t hear it. The Chateau Montellena has a big, bold taste, and that’s the mood of the moment. The pleasures of With These Hands are more subtle, and make better sense earlier or later in the day.
And, anyway, Alejandro quit making drinking and shouting music awhile back. The time for bold statements has long passed, and Escovedo now writes richly nuanced songs. The tension a young Jesse Colin caught in “Four in the Morning” spun naturally into murder; in Escovedo’s hands that same sadness becomes a love song. Well, they’re both love songs, but Escovedo’s persona gets to wake up next to his wife, not in prison.
Indeed, it’s tempting to suggest that Escovedo has become the American Richard Thompson …. or should that be the Latino Richard Thompson? (He does manage a bicultural existence, at that.) Like Thompson, Escovedo has a knack for writing personal and emotional songs, and the confidence to place bursts of crescendo in just the right spots. He’s probably not the guitar player Thompson is, but then Alejandro didn’t start playing until he was 24.
A strong Latin cadence seems to have poured out during the creation of With These Hands. “Some people have told me it kind of sounds like a mariachi band,” Escovedo says over the phone, watching his two small children play. “It definitely sounds more …. exotic.” Actually, Escovedo has quite spontaneously nailed the mood Bruce Springsteen worked so hard to learn for The Ghost of Tom Joad, but he has certain advantages. If With These Hands has a mariachi flavor, well, Alejandro’s father was a famous singer in mariachi bands. And Alejandro’s cousin, Sheila E., happened to be around around the studio to add percussion.
It was and is a musical family, which in part explains Alejandro’s comparatively late arrival to the party. “My brothers were all famous musicians,” he says, “and I remember feeling kind of like I was in competition with them.” As brothers do, Alejandro set off to find his distinct niche in the world. Which is how budding filmmaker/actor Alejandro, 24 and living in San Francisco, came to form a punk band called the Nuns. Really, they just needed a rock band for the movie they thought they were filming.
“I wanted to make a movie about being in a horrible band, and we didn’t have a budget,” he chuckles. “And so we played some gigs, and we picked a good time because punk rock was just starting to happen. San Francisco was a good place, too, because either you played Winterland like Journey, or else you didn’t play. There weren’t little clubs. It was ripe for someone to start a little scene, and we were one of the first bands to play. There was a lot of artists, it was a real tight little scene.”
After the Nuns went off to punk rock heaven, Escovedo played with cowpunk legends Rank & File, then with his brother Javier in True Believers. After the second True Believers record got tied up in major label hell (it was finally released in 1994, along with the first disc, in a nice Rykodisc package) Escovedo settled down in Austin. For a time he played with 12-person band, before he was finally persuaded to work on quieter solo material.
And so he began the hard work of writing music that no longer depended upon the exuberance of his youth for its impact, but still retained that fire, that searching impulse to explore and create. It’s a neat trick, and maybe only Neil Young has pulled it off for anywhere near as long. And so we’ve had three releases of comparatively subtle, introspective material. Mind you, they play just fine live, and Escovedo uses his broad repertoire to good advantage in that context.
With These Hands makes for a tender kind of summation. In it can be heard bits and pieces of every musical style Escovedo has explored and many he grew up with. And much of what he has learned over those years.
“That’s definitely part of it,” Escovedo says. “I wanted the solo records, starting out with Gravity, to really be in the emotional territory that I was in then. Thirteen Years was about surviving all that change. And then this record I wanted to be more a musical experience.
“But it’s funny about songs,” he goes on. “I don’t really fully understand them immediately. Especially the personal stuff. It pours out and then you have to check it out.” There is a short pause. “We all wish we were better sons.”