There's no greater compliment a fan can pay an artist than to confess that he reaches one's most private core. Alejandro Escovedo has done so in the past for this writer, most notably on his '93 epic Thirteen Years, a stark chronicle of tragedy, serenity and bloody-minded resolve (much of it concerned with his wife's suicide and its aftermath). He does it again on his sixth solo album, A Man Under the Influence, which, not coincidentally, bears key resemblances to the earlier record. Musically, both are populated by lush, inspiring string orchestrations and vibrant mood swings between gentle acoustic reverie and churning electric agitation. Thematically, too, Influence has some familiar Escovedo mood swings: One song charts a beautiful courtship dance; another, a wedding day; still another, a downcast eulogy for a former mentor; and on several, the stages of a relationship that's falling into tatters. Influence, however, is one of those "album of a lifetime" efforts where not only does everything click, there's a prevailing kissed-by-the-muses vibe that oozes from the record's pores. Trust me, you'll sense it.
Significantly, Escovedo had to leave his hometown digs in Austin, Texas, to paint his masterpiece. Recorded in Chapel Hill with sonic wizard Chris Stamey at the board, a diverse cast of Carolinians (Mitch Easter, Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, assorted Superchunks, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Backsliders) pitched in. A case of the grass being greener in N.C. than in Texas? Not necessarily. Escovedo tends to thrive in collaborative situations (this is a man, after all, who fronts his own large-scale Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra when the notion strikes). Escovedo's band -- drummer Hector Muñoz, guitarist Joe Eddy Hines, cellist Brian Standefer, and multi-instrumentalists Mike Daly and Eric Heywood -- accompanied him on the trip; plus, the connection actually took hold a couple of years ago when Escovedo hooked up with Stamey to record a handful of tunes for 1999's Bourbonitis Blues. There are some interesting Tarheel cameos to listen for, however: 'chunk's Mac MacCaughan oozing out some creepy-swirly Moog groans on "Castanets"; Adams' backing vocals lining both "Don't Need You" and "As I Fall"; the three gals known as Tres Chicas (Cary, Tonya Lamm and ex-Let's Active Lynn Blakey) weighing in with their own sweet/high-lonesome vocals in "Castanets"; and the combined punch of Easter and Stamey on guitars, Cary's fiddle and Jon (Superchunk) Wurster's drums enlivening "Rhapsody."
At any rate, even when Escovedo's at his most traditional here (say, the old country waltz of "Wedding Day," or the twang-and-chime rock of "Velvet Guitar"), sparks fly well beyond the perimeters of what one usually associates with a roots/No Depression record. The pair of opening cuts alone are sufficient to locate Escovedo as one of our preeminent songwriters: "Wave," a tale of migrants' travails as they cross the border and bid farewell to their homes (it could stand for the American experience itself), is awash in swaying rhythms, a haunting atmospheric melody, and a harmony vocal hook that's positively Beatlesque, while Latin-flecked rhapsody "Rosalie" is a memorable romantic lovers' dance ("Let the world spin you closer to me/Take a chance on us, Rosalie") on a par with the great soul ballads of the '60s. Both narratives, interestingly, are also found in a current play that Escovedo scored and co-wrote, By the Hand of the Father, which relates the lives of several Mexican-American males over the course of a couple of generations.
Other songs have a more personal spin to them. Bare-bones cello/acoustic guitar number "Follow You Down" is a fragile remembrance of Escovedo's late idol Townes Van Zandt ("I've been dancing with the ghost/The cause of all this trouble"). It's hard not to listen to "As I Fall" without thinking about Escovedo's recent breakup with his wife ("Someone without you/Who placed a ring upon your hand. . . . The things I meant to say/All seem to slip away"); couched in gently burnished folk-rock terms underscored by weeping violin, pedal steel and tremolo, its combined lyrical plaint and sonic elegance make it one of the most intensely emotional songs Escovedo's ever written. And closing number "About This Love," a riveting tune that's part neo-'50s pop and part country baroque, while also containing downcast images ("It's about this pain/It's about this loss"), manages to strike a crucial forward-looking balance -- "It's about the way/We break to love again" -- that helps lead the listener away on a note of optimism.
Unique among his alt-country peers in the same way that Ani DiFranco is an anomaly of the avant-folk scene or how Neil Young stands apart from his fellow '60s survivors, Escovedo has created one of those rare, out-of-time artifacts that references and incorporates a wealth of styles and influences to wind up an utterly unique, moving portrait of a man who's constantly in transition even as he clutches to little scraps of inner peace. He's also one of those rare artists blessed with the capacity, as indicated above, to reach inside the listener and touch something deep and primal.
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