Singer-songwriter travels through the mirror
September 6, 2006
On his captivating new CD “The Boxing Mirror,” Alejandro Escovedo’s voice sounds strained, fragile and naked. Those qualities are amplified against an instrumental sound that is sometimes thrashing, other times delicate, but always meticulously crafted. The clash of sounds is most evident on “Take Your Place,” with Escovedo’s voice contrasting with the song’s dance beat. It is as if whoever was behind the controls was looking to avoid the producer’s customary job of making the singer’s voice easy on the ears.Escovedo’s far-from-perfect voice, however, is perfect for what he tries to get across on “The Boxing Mirror.” With poetic language, the album addresses such topics as suicide; the difficulties of love, romance and marriage; and, thanks to Escovedo’s near-fatal bout with hepatitis C a few years ago, death.For both the sound of “The Boxing Mirror,” and for its emotional weight, Escovedo gives credit to his producer, John Cale. Cale was not only behind the boards during the recording of the album, but was there, as a member of the Velvet Underground, when Escovedo was turned on to the possibility that pop music could embody true art.
“I just felt, listening to Mott the Hoople and these other bands, that music could have a broader emotional spectrum than just, ‘I love you,'” said the 55-year-old Escovedo, whose father was a mariachi singer. “I thought it could be more literate and true, with a deeper emotional feeling through it.”Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, then Southern California, in the ’60s, Escovedo favored the smarter side of rock music. Among his favorites were Leonard Cohen, Townes van Zandt and Tim Buckley. None of those, however, had the impact of the Velvet Underground. Perhaps the first art-rock group, whose music was desolate and difficult but also romantic and even fun, the Velvet Underground featured such transgressive sounds as Lou Reed’s sneering voice and John Cale’s viola.”It was probably the biggest influence I’ve had,” said Escovedo, who performs at the Belly Up tonight. “They were singing about things that other bands weren’t singing about. It was real, about life on the street. And I liked the way they would go from ballads to noise.”
After his college years in San Francisco, when he first picked up guitar, Escovedo moved to New York City. He arrived just in time for the explosion of the late-’70s downtown scene, but he only made the brief acquaintance of the classically trained Cale. Escovedo did, however, befriend Sterling Morrison, the Velvet Underground’s guitarist, when both were living in Austin in the ’80s. Morrison died in 1995, and both Escovedo and Cale were included in a performance tribute to Morrison a few years ago. In 2004, the two played several shows together at Austin’s South by Southwest festival. “And that’s when we started talking about making the record,” said Escovedo, noting that Cale, who had produced records in the ’70s for Nico, the Stooges and Patti Smith, had not done much work as a producer over the years.When Escovedo was in dire need, Cale offered his assistance. Escovedo had been diagnosed with hepatitis in the late ’90s, and in 2002, he fell critically ill. Cale was among the first artists to sign up for “Por Vida,” a two-CD tribute to Escovedo’s songs that raised funds for his medical expenses. Joining Cale on the project were Lucinda Williams, Los Lonely Boys, Charlie Musselwhite, Cowboy Junkies and more.In December of last year, Escovedo and Cale convened at a Los Angeles studio. Escovedo came with a few songs sketched out, and some scraps of ideas for others. He also brought some poetry that his wife, Kim Christoff, had written.
“He wanted me to show up with whatever I had. He likes working with bits and pieces of material,” said Escovedo. “He put me in a very comfortable place. The vocal parts are better than anything I’ve done. The playing was very inspired, but that’s what John’s presence brought out.””The Boxing Mirror” is only the most concrete thing to come out of the collaboration.”It’s one of those experiences in your lifetime that are important, profound,” Escovedo said. “Working with John took me full circle, to where I started and to where I am now.”Tickets to tonight’s performance are $20. For a complete listing of upcoming Belly Up shows, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org