Alejandro Escovedo

Finding grace

emailEmail This Page emailPrint This Page
By Michael Norman  

Critics are always looking for the next rock 'n' roll poet -- someone who can forge a transcendent musical experience out of the raw materials of drums, guitars and lyrics. Plenty of artists have been given the tag over the years -- from superstars Bob Dylan and Bruce Springteen to cult favorites Leonard Cohen and Steve Earle. But right now, the poet laureate of rock has got to be Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, an artist capable of transforming a simple folk song into a symphony of catharsis.

Escovedo's musical pedigree goes back more than 30 years and includes time in a series of influential American rock bands, including The Nuns, Rank and File and The True Believers. But he emerged as one of the singular voices in American music in the 1990s with a series of solo albums that explored life, from the promise of love to the specter of death, in irresistible songs that blended eloquent lyricism, sophisticated arrangements and instrumentation.

The Boxing Mirror is his first studio album in six years, a layoff prompted in part by illness. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C a few years ago and was near death when he began work on the album. The music that came out of that experience is Escovedo's best to date, ranging from romantic rock 'n' roll chamber music ("Looking for Love," "The Ladder") to hard-charging, wrenching, kaleidoscopic rock ("Break This Time," "Sacramento & Polk"). It's also an album about losing one's way, then finding a way to step back from the brink. Songs like "Arizona" and "Died Little Today" explore the consequences of selfishness and bad decisions, but simmer with a hope rooted in the desire for redemption. As the title implies, this is a story of a fight, in this case between Escovedo and himself.

The album is produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale, whose production credits include seminal work by Patti Smith, the Stooges, Nick Drake and Squeeze. Adding Cale to the mix gives The Boxing Mirror a savage, edgy grace. Easily one of the best rock records of 2006.

Michael Norman is Entertainment Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.