Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Ho-Hum, Another Excellent--But Not Surpassing--Album From Alejandro Escovedo -- Album Review: Big Station

Album Review

Alejandro Escovedo
Big Station

At 61, Alejandro Escovedo has had--and continues to have--a career that many musicians would find enviable.

Although I didn't come to know of him until 1996 with the release of With These Hands, he had already had--as detailed on AllMusic.com--a formidable run dating from the mid '70s. He co-founded a pioneering punk band--The Nuns--and was part of another--Rank and File--before creating and leading the True Believers, an acclaimed band from Austin, TX.

With 1992's Gravity, Escovedo began a solo career that has never been less than stellar. I think he has officially released 11 studio albums in the last 20 years, but setting aside those featuring reissues of earlier songs and other special projects, the new Big Station is the eighth of his primary studio works. And it makes 8 of 8 to which All Music awards 4 stars or more (on a 5-star scale), with other critical acclaim--and my enjoyment--pretty consistent as well.

Yet despite a recorded output that can rival anyone's over the same span, routinely superb, high-energy live shows, steady promotion from WXRT in Chicago and a few recent on-stage appearances with Bruce Springsteen that have helped to raise his profile a bit, Alejandro Escovedo is still not a household name.

Having beaten a life-threatening case of Hepatitis C a few years ago, I have to assume that achieving mass stardom isn't among Alejandro's main objectives at this point, especially as not everyone can continue to put out well-received records and tour to a loyal following.

But while I didn't really expect Big Station would be the album to convert the masses, my initial conclusion is that--while it's another solid set of music from a master craftsman--it doesn't deserve to be.

After seeing particularly strong reviews of Big Station by the Tribune's Greg Kot (3.5 stars/4.0) and AllMusic.com (4.5/5.0), I bought it presuming that I would champion it as an album any rock music lover should buy while expressing chagrin that its marketplace impact would not match its merits.

However--with the caveat that my listening life-cycle is still in its infancy--although I hear considerable quality in Big Station, would recommend it to any existing Escovedo fans and am happy to have it in my collection, it is not an album that I really can suggest should convert the uninitiated.

Like Escovedo's last two albums, Real Animal and Street Songs of Love, this one is produced by Tony Visconti, who did likewise for several David Bowie and T. Rex albums, and an impressive list of others. Similar to Alejandro's past couple--and pretty much all his discs--the new album bridges a variety of styles, from rollicking hard rock to introspective country ballads. "Man of the World" and "Big Station" lead off the album solidly in the former realm, while "Bottom of the World" and "Never Stood a Chance" demonstrate Escovedo's deft touch with songs of despair.

If you've never listened to Alejandro Escovedo, Big Station certainly wouldn't be a bad introduction. But even among the Visconti-produced trio, at this point it feels like the "Show horse." And I also like earlier albums--With These Hands, Gravity and A Man Under the Influence--a good bit more.

While the depth and diversity is impressive, there's nothing here that jumps out like "Always a Friend," "Sister Lost Soul," "Anchor," or "Silver Cloud," off Real Animal and Street Songs of Love.

It's undoubtedly a double-edged sword to be so good for so long that it becomes hard to top yourself, or even to create something notably different from what you already have. Calling Big Station just another excellent Alejandro Escovedo album but not among his very best--or my favorites--isn't to negate that many singer-songwriters would be thrilled with creating an album this solid, nor to imply that most listeners who give it a chance shouldn't find a whole lot to like or that I don't expect it to grow on me.

But if I'm trying to tell the world that Alejandro Escovedo is an artist that still represents what's right about the dying genre of rock 'n roll, while his latest album might qualify as further evidence, Big Station isn't where the heretofore oblivious should get on board.

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