Alejandro Escovedo’s Secret Room

From a hotel room in Milwaukee, 50-year-old singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo was discussing one of the more enduring loves of his life. “I think sometimes that’s why I’ve had such a hard time with relationships with women,” he said, in a California-casual voice marbled with world-weariness. “Because the love that I have for writing songs is a serious one–and one that can’t be shared with everyone.” Dead silence. “It’s a secret room, almost, where no one else can go into,” Mr. Escovedo said finally, his voice filled with resignation. “So that sets up a barrier right there ….”

Anyone who’s spent time with Mr. Escovedo’s muscular music, which ranges from balls-out rockers to strings-heavy, Tex-Mex-flavored ballads, will understand why those closest to the San Antonio-born musician would want access to that room. Mr. Escovedo, who didn’t start writing his own songs until he was 30, has some dead-on instincts for communicating the highs and lows of human experience through rhythm and lyrics. Heartbreak is Mr. Escovedo’s specialty, but his integral, head-heart-and-guts approach ensures that even when he’s performing other artists’ songs–such as Ian Hunter’s “Irene Wilde” (which appeared on last year’s lively Bourbonitis Blues ) or Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” a staple of his concerts–Mr. Escovedo is bringing something new and honest to the stage.

Those who haven’t heard Mr. Escovedo will have the opportunity on May 11 and 12, when he appears at the Mercury Lounge on Houston Street to perform songs from his excellent new album, A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot). On May 12, he will also provide musical accompaniment for his friend, the novelist Larry Brown, as he reads from his new book, Billy Ray’s Farm , at Housing Works Used Book Cafe at 126 Crosby Street.

Mr. Escovedo’s musical evolution began more than three decades ago. While directing a student film about “the worst band in the world,” he and a classmate decided to play the roles themselves. They eventually became a real band, the Nuns, the punk outfit that earned a footnote in rock history for opening for the Sex Pistols’ last concert at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1978. Later he became a member of the country-punk unit Rank and File and, after that, a member of the True Believers with his younger brother Javier. (His other brothers, Pete and the late Coke Escovedo, played percussion for Santana, and his niece is the former Prince protégée Sheila E.) He also spent a period here in New York, the land of his heroes Iggy Pop, the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls.

As the 90’s began, Mr. Escovedo returned to Austin, Texas, to concentrate on a solo career and raise a family. His resistance to forming the emotional calluses that often plague artists no doubt has much to do with the life-altering events he has weathered there in the ensuing years. Not long after his return, his wife Bobbi committed suicide, leaving him to raise their two daughters, then 9 years old and 6 months old, respectively.

Ten years down the road, Mr. Escovedo is now the proud father of six children, who range in age from 2 to 31 years old. He hasn’t been so lucky in love, though. He’s currently separated from his third wife, the mother of that 2-year-old.

Those years of exploration and introspection–both personal and artistic–come to fruition on A Man Under the Influence , which was produced by Chris Stamey of the dBs. Mr. Escovedo spent a good portion of the last decade trying to understand the life of his Mexican immigrant father, who worked as a mariachi player, prizefighter and plumber, according to Mr. Escovedo. This moved Mr. Escovedo to co-write a music-based theatrical production, By the Hand of the Father , based on the experiences of his and a number of other Mexican fathers “who were all born at the turn of the century and made that journey from Mexico to the Southwest,” he said. “It kind of questions the enigma of the Mexican male–how he’s a very silent figure, you know, and kind of odd. He’s very masculine, he’s very macho, but he’s also almost effeminate in his emotional makeup.

“I always looked at my father as being such a strong man,” Mr. Escovedo continued. “He had done all these things, lived such an amazing life, and yet he never had that strength to be able to tell me these real sensitive things.”

Two of the songs from the play, “Wave” and “Rosalie,” appear on A Man Under the Influence . But if there is a theme to the album, it seems best expressed by the haunting last song, “About This Love,” on which he sings: “It’s all about this love / It’s all about this pain / It’s all about the loss / We take to live again.” Near the end of the song, Mr. Escovedo changes the last line of that refrain to “We make to live again.”

And though Mr. Escovedo explored both his relationship with his wife Bobbi and its aftermath on 1992’s Gravity and 1993’s Thirteen Years , the track “Across the River” leaves the distinct impression that he’s still haunted by her death. “What kind of love destroys a mother and sends her crashing through the tangled trees?” the lyrics ask.

On the phone, Mr. Escovedo said the song was inspired by an old Mexican folk tale that his father told him about La Llorona, a young peasant woman who falls in love with a wealthy landowner. The couple have children out of wedlock, but the man’s parents pressure him into marrying a woman from his own class. On the day of the wedding, the woman leaves her children to attend the ceremony, but when she returns, they have disappeared. In despair, she throws herself into the Rio Grande. “When she gets to heaven, she’s asked where her children are,” Mr. Escovedo said. “She says she doesn’t know. So she’s made to wander the Southwest looking for her children, crying the whole time.”

The parallels between the father’s folk tale and the son’s life didn’t occur to me until a few days after the interview. I called Mr. Escovedo’s publicist and asked if he was willing to discuss it further. Although Mr. Escovedo acknowledged the connection, he declined to talk about it.

The secret room was closed. But listen closely at the Mercury Lounge and you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like inside.

–Frank DiGiacomo

R.E.M: Losing Their Religion

A few weeks ago, I was wandering the aisles of my local D’Agostino’s when I heard strangely familiar music piping from the in-store P.A. system. The tinkly four-to-the-bar piano, gruff bass harmonica and high vocal harmonies sounded straight out of Hawthorne, Calif., but eventually I realized it wasn’t the Beach Boys at all. It was R.E.M. performing “At My Most Beautiful,” the clever Brian Wilson pastiche from their last album, 1998’s Up . Michael Stipe’s quavery voice intoning the line “I read bad poetry into your machine” made a curious but pleasant soundtrack as I scanned the shelves for napkins and paper towels.

Now, you could argue that R.E.M.’s inclusion in supermarket background music is somehow hip. Or deliciously subversive. Or confirmation that, sooner or later, all that is alternative melts into the mainstream. What it suggests to me, however, is that one of the leading American rock bands of the post-punk era has finally completed its long transition into utter irrelevance.

My suspicions were confirmed after listening a few times to Reveal (Warner Bros.), R.E.M.’s 12th album and its second without original drummer Bill Berry. Reveal isn’t a terrible album; it’s thoughtful and well-crafted and would, I’m sure, provide excellent sonic backup for a journey through the produce section. But it is painfully dull. Its title is amusing, too, because Reveal essentially reveals that, despite R.E.M.’s pretense to depth, there is ultimately nothing of interest beneath the facile surface of its music.

For most of the album, that surface is pretty uninteresting, too. Apparently the three remaining founding members of R.E.M.–Mr. Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills–have decided that they will no longer be rocking out. Given that their last attempt to crank up the volume was 1994’s sluggish Monster , this is not necessarily a bad idea.

But what R.E.M. have put in place of full-tilt rock ‘n’ roll is a kind of knowing postmodern commentary on middle-of-the-road pop. It’s a tactic so many other artists have already tried that the only way it works anymore is if you back it up with ear-catching tunes. And there are very few here.

Occasionally, a novel moment rises above the general miasma. “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” is buoyed by a galumphing six-string bass, twangy electric sitar and what sounds like the clicking of castanets; “Saturn Return” is a sensitive piano ballad laid on top of a cacophony of synthesized percussion; and “Beachball” combines a pseudo-bossa-nova beat with a beefy horn line. But these bits of whimsical arrangement camouflage a series of predictable, uninspired melodies that only become memorable when they are repeated to the point of idiocy.

Yes, Mr. Stipe’s lyrics are oblique-but-witty commentaries on himself, pop culture and the travails of modern life. Unfortunately, his delivery of those lyrics is so caked with feigned sincerity that it can be downright sickening. And honestly, who cares about the words when the music is almost a total bore?

For those true believers who may take offense at this assessment, here’s a personal confession: My interest in R.E.M. peaked in 1987. I greatly enjoyed most of the music they made in their first decade of existence, and to this day I still love songs like “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.” But when Mr. Stipe stopped mumbling like a shaman and started enunciating his lyrics, his schtick began to grate on me. “Losing My Religion,” a song that an entire generation seems to have taken to heart, has always annoyed me, and I regard most of what the band has done since then as an exercise in pointlessness. I do admire what the latter-day R.E.M. has achieved–the way they’ve valiantly maintained their integrity in the face of mega-stardom, the way they’ve inspired so many struggling artists–and I want to like them, but I just can’t do it.

One of the most engaging tracks on Reveal , “Imitation Of Life,” actually harks back to the classic R.E.M. sound of my youth. Mr. Buck dusts off his old Rickenbacker 12-string, and Mr. Stipe nails a keening chorus. Compared with the rest of this album, it’s an exciting moment. But placed next to anything off of Murmur or Reckoning , it comes up lame. The song’s title, like the album’s, is cruelly apt. For this is nothing more than a pale copy of music that once pulsed with a vital force. Unless you’re an unquestioning fan of R.E.M. (in which case, God help you), Reveal is not worth your time .

–Mac Randall

Cowboy Junky

Thirteen years ago, Cowboy Junkies released The Trinity Session , a severe whisper of an album that was recorded live, using a single microphone, at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity. Rarely has a band so smartly reinterpreted such a range of iconic songs. The standards of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, the Velvet Underground and Patsy Cline were deliciously reborn through the sultry wonders of Margo Timmins’ voice and her brother Michael Timmins’ guitar. The pair shared writing credits on a handful of other songs, including the lovelorn “Misguided Angel” and the fatalistic “To Love Is to Bury.” (Another brother, Peter Timmins, played drums on the album.)

At first blush, it looked as if the music world had the sib equivalent of Richard and Linda Thompson on its hands: a tempestuous couple whose passion was matched by their communicative power.

But the Junkies never lived up to the brilliant promise of The Trinity Sessions ; 1990’s The Caution Horses and 1993’s Pale Sun, Crescent Moon both had moments of stark beauty, but nothing captured the heavy-lidded wallop of their debut. And over the last several years, the band has slipped so far off the radar screen of hipster respectability that many onetime fans assume the Junkies stopped playing together long ago.

In fact, the Cowboy Junkie’s latest release, Open (Latent/Zoe), is the band’s fifth album in five years (counting one rarities collection and one greatest-hits disc). Unfortunately, it does little to dispel the notion that the band was a casualty of the 90’s. The Junkies’ most recent album of new material, 1998’s Miles From Our Home , was a sad, slick effort to hit pop pay dirt. Open is an unfortunate continuation of this trend.

Without a major-label contract ( Open , like The Trinity Sessions , is being released by the band’s own Latent label; Zoe is handling stateside distribution), the Junkies seem to be at a tipping point. The band could either have harked back to its roots of beautiful despair or tried, once again, to reach a wider audience. The Timmins seem to have opted for the latter approach, creating a confusing album of adult-contemporary mishmash.

Where Mr. Timmins’ most moving guitar work often consisted of little more than deliberately strummed rhythm lines, here he seems to be trying to don the guitar-god mantle, introducing open-ended jams such as “Dragging Hooks” and “Dark Hole Again” with spacey electric solos that wouldn’t feel out of place in the middle of a Grateful Dead concert. On “Bread and Wine,” the standard-issue wah-wah guitar is backed by organ washes that might as well have been lifted straight from a classic-rock playbook.

As Ms. Timmins tries to inject some needed emotion into clichés like “Your heart ain’t nearly as guilty as mine,” it’s impossible not to remember how effortlessly she sang of searching out “something small and frail and plastic, baby / ‘Cause cheap is how I feel.”

Even the album’s more deliberate numbers sound as if they were called in. “Thousand Year Prayer,” with its tinkling piano lines and second-hand wood block, sounds cheesy and remote instead of dangerously sparse.

I’ve never been one to begrudge musicians the right to explore new avenues. On Open , however, one doesn’t get the sense that the Cowboy Junkies are exploring new creative paths. Instead, the album feels like a sad, uninspired effort, driven by a desire to rediscover a commercial rather than artistic success. The band seems to have forgotten that wasn’t the formula that worked for them in the first place.

–Seth Mnookin