Review: Various Artists – “Por Vida, A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo” (Cooking Vinyl 2004)
First point – the songs of Alejandro Escovedo have a peculiarity (ok, they have many, but one stands out among the other): the gift to sound immediately as the most original among the possible interpretations. It is not something so obvious; there’s plenty of great songwriters we can’t tell the same about. Instead the songs of Alejandro seem almost impossible to renew, unless we denaturalize them completely. After all, how many authors can boast the privilege to have drawn a form of song able to contain Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop, Texan troubadours and Mexican roots, orchestral volutes and punk impetuousness? Anyway, if the magazine No Depression, the Holy Bible of alt.country, has elected this man “artist of the decade” (referring to the 1990s), you can bet they had a reason to do it.
Second point – the body of Alejandro Escovedo was unfortunately weakened by a rare form of hepatitis C, that, in practice, prevented him from recording and regularly performing live. The medical treatment needed to cure his illness was very expansive and Escovedo couldn’t afford it. The “American Roots Community” contributed to the cause with the tribute Por Vida (introduced by a sagacious critics by Dave Marsh), a double CD whose earnings were destined to the Alejandro Fund project. Fortunately, in 2005 Alejandro recovered completely from the disease.
Going back to the record, how could we define this operation from a critical point of view? Certainly successful, this must be said, also because it is not simple to object something remarkable to 150 minutes of music starring names such as Lucinda Williams (her version of Pyramid Of Tears is beautiful), Steve Earle & Reckless Kelly (promoters of a rocky Paradise), Lenny Kaye (protagonist of a Sacrament & Polk that sounds like Lou Reed) or Ian Hunter (an excellent One More Time, propped by the killer guitars of Andy York). Nevertheless, to resume point one, we must also point out that, given the eccentric nature of the covered material, the level is not always as high as it should be and the album includes some underperforming moments together with some real stylistic messes.
Among the ones that decided to come along with their own sound, the only ones that surely made their points with positive results are the Cowboy Junkies (Don’t Need You, dried and severe), Calexico (the magnetic Wave) and Son Volt (a rocking Sometimes). All three are in possession of a personal style, highly peculiar, noticeable, and able to make the appropriation of compositions of other songwriters a natural process.
On the other hand, Bob Neuwirth with Rosalie , the duo Jon Langford/Sally Timmis with Broken Bottle, Jennifer Warnes with Pissed Off 2am, Rosie Flores with Inside This Dance or Charlie Musselwhite with Everybody Loves Me don’t impress because their covers seem affected by an excessive superficiality compared to the original renditions.
Also within the thick group of the traitors of the original sounds of the artists (the most audacious compared to the original styles of the songs), there are many ups (notables) and downs (equally notable). The violins of the Section Quartet surprise yet convince in a Crooked Frame that shows, uninhibited, the rigorous footstep of the classical music. The same happens with the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra that brings Velvet Guitar to a walk between reggae and Hawaii, or again the unusual trio composed by M. Ward, Howe Gelb and Vic Chesnutt (R.I.P.), able to be really evocative in the country-noir atmospheres of Way It Goes.
On the other hand, the claustrophobic She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by the maestro John Cale, a Last To Know transformed by the (usually great) Jayhawks in an unhappy rock’n’roll and psychedelic tangle and a Ballad Of The Sun And The Moon trivialized trough insipid funky beats by Pete Escovedo and Sheila E are rather incomprehensible.
What remain, besides a beautiful new song of Escovedo himself (Break This Time), are many honest examples of Americana that, even if they aren’t always worth the starting intuitions of the original artists, can give good and strong vibrations.
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