Rock’n’roll is a derivative art form that as a genre of popular music has lasted an unusually long time. The distance stretching back to when the Beatles hit our shores is longer than the period between World War I and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Yeah, World War I.
So one factor that surely influences our appreciation of artists is which antecedent sensibilities inform their work — can we hear traces of the Rolling Stones or the Velvet Underground in what they do? Is it clear they listened to punk rock in its day? Yes, of course, the work should be judged on its own, but since rock’n’roll iterates off a simple four-chord standard, the artist’s vantage point really matters.
We recently wrote about Tim Presley, whose bands Darker My Love and particularly, White Fence, have been important to us. And of course when we listen to Presley, we know exactly how much this guy who grew up with the last name of rock’s first superstar enjoyed the Who and the Kinks, punk rock and David Bowie, and it adds to our appreciation of him.
The great Austin troubadour Alejandro Escovedo has always worn his influences on his sleeve: Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, Texas songwriters like Townes Van Zandt. He’s finished sets with covers of songs by Mick Jagger and David Bowie. And he himself embodies distinct periods in musical history, from his San Francisco punk band The Nuns, to an early stab at alt.country, Rank and File, to ’80s Austin power rockers True Believers. He can write gorgeous ballads and thrilling rockers, and the protean assemblage of musicians he takes on the road or into the studio can include cello players and violinists, pedal steel and guitar virtuosi, kick-ass drummers or no drums at all. Most important, his vantage point on rock’n’roll is historical, well informed, with a rock critic’s curatorial sensibility. But no matter how pretty his songs, no matter how delicate the chamber-pop interplay between cello and acoustic guitar, his default preference is for rock’n’roll. He’s given us, over the past 25 years of albums and live shows, some of the greatest music we’ve ever heard.
And now comes Burn Something Beautiful and the musicians who back him up include Peter Buck on guitar, and on bass Scott McCaughey — who separately have forged the sounds of bands like R.E.M. and together have made some of Robyn Hitchcock’s best albums — not to mention having Jenny Lewis (Neko Case) and Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney) on back-up vox. This is the best sounding of Alejandro’s hardest rocking albums, the songwriting is consistently great, his singing is on-key and delightful, and we have found ourselves as excited about listening to one of his records as we have been since With These Hands came out 20 years ago.
And what roots are exposed here? Well, can’t you hear Bowie’s Spiders From Mars playing “Beauty and the Buzz”? “Johnny Volume” has a final line — “I’m just looking for a kiss” — that of course invokes the New York Dolls, and Alejandro tells the whole story of ’70s NY bands in one gorgeous song. “Shave The Cat” adds T. Rex to Escovedo’s explicit influences, which makes sense since Monster revealed the glam bands of that era as Peter Buck’s faves. Long ago, Whiskeytown invited Al to sing on Stranger’s Almanac, and on “Redemption Blues” we hear an update of that sound. And Lou Reed’s influence? Everywhere.
Anyone who loves Mott the Hoople or Lou Reed will love this record. More importantly, anyone who loved R.E.M.’s Monster (made after Peter Buck had spent time with the Fleshtones, and learned a trick or two from Keith Streng about how to build a world upon barre chords), will dig this. Most important of all: anyone who has ever thrilled to hear how Alejandro assembles a classic rock’n’roll album based upon his experiences and unique vantage point will see this one for what it is: his best album in this late hard-rocking phase of an amazing career.