If you did not know how long the road has been for Alejandro Escovedo to be able to release a radio-ready disk as commercially viable and excellent as “Real Animal,” you might think it was easy. Yet it was just three years ago that we wondered whether Al would live long enough to ever play music again. That he’s now produced not simply a career restropective, but the album of his career is a testament to persistence, magic, kismet. You don’t need to be a cynic to doubt such happy endings. This one’s true.
“Real Animal” is the hardest rocking album Alejandro’s been involved in since that Buick McKane project in the late ’90s. It actually wallops as hard as that second, inferior True Believers album back in the late ’80s. Tony Visconti quotes liberally from his past work for David Bowie, and cribs from some of Bowie’s other, lesser producers, to give Alejandro a sheen that serves him well. It’s the songs, though, and how strong Al’s voice is, that makes the record a career highlight.
“Always A Friend” is a transparent attempt at an FM hit, if there is such a thing these days, and kicks off the album with an homage to Alejandro’s new friend Bruce Springsteen. I don’t hold this against anyone involved. Interestingly, “Chelsea Hotel,” which shows him reminiscing for the days of ’78 when Neon Leon stalked West 23rd Street, sounds more like a John Cale song than anything on 2006’s “The Boxing Mirror,” which Cale produced.
“Sister Lost Soul” is prime Alejandro: melodic, beautiful, a marriage of classic ’70s rock with Austin grit. The sheer improbability of an American artist who combines Rolling Stones riffs with Bowie glam, Detroit guitar rock with Southwestern roots rock, and fills it all out with a small chamber orchestra on top of two-guitars and kicking drums can partly explain why the boy’s defied the easy categorization the music biz demands.
“Smoke,” like “Nuns Song,” is one of the greatest hard rockers from any of Alejandro’s bands or periods — and this is a guy who was in a San Francisco punk band (The Nuns), a Texas hard rock project (True Believers), and the seminal roots rockers Rank and File. In fact, “Nuns Song,” with its farfisa organ garage undertow, and choogling cellos in the rhythm section, is such a great song he repeats it as an acoustic duo with Dave Pulkingham, and damn if it’s not just as good.
“Sensitive Boys” makes you think of Bowie’s “Young Americans” album and “Golden Bear” takes its production cues from The Thin White Duke — cleverly, without being derivative; it’s a quotation more than an appropriation.
The album has some misses. The title track’s not great, and some of the softer songs are poor reminders of how poignant Alejandro is at his best.
But did the guy rise to the moment? Yes, and then some. His partnership with Chuck Prophet here is remarkably successful, and Visconti was both an inspired choice and a great medium to invoke the spirit of Alejandro’s past.
Rare is the artist who by merely quoting from himself can create an album as diverse and deep as “Real Animal.” But of course our most important American songwriter of the past fifteen years would come through when it matters. He’s a real animal.