Alejandro Escovedo has been in the rock and roll business for 30 years now, but Real Animal, his first major-label release, is the breakthrough that puts together his disparate pieces.
Escovedo has one of the great unsung hero rock biographies. He fronted San Francisco’s first punk band, The Nuns, who were the opening act at the Sex Pistols’ last show. Then he went home to Texas and helped invent the alternative-country genre with the band Rank and File. A couple of bands and several solo albums later, in 2003 Escovedo almost died from hepatitis C.
The near-death experience was recounted on his last album, The Boxing Mirror. But the rest of his life is all here on Real Animal. In fact, the album’s autobiographical tunes comprise a middle-era rock history survey. Just look at the track list—“Nuns Song,” “Chip N’ Tony&rdquo (his Rank and File bandmates), “Chelsea Hotel ’78”(where Pistols bassist Sid Vicious died).
Over the years, Escovedo’s musical pendulum has swung from full-out rock assaults to music for string quartets. Here he plays with his road band, which includes a basic rock combo supplemented by violin and cello, and incorporates that eclecticism.
And the album’s best tunes synthesize Escovedo’s life experience into sweeping proclamations of big lessons learned. For instance, check out “People” (bottom line: “I love them”), “Always a Friend” (a self-deprecating proclamation of eternal love), and “Slow Down” (“We were as free as the sun shining on our faces /As free as the light that comes down from other places”).
Finally, on the reflective ballad “The Swallows of San Juan,” Escovedo comes up with a chorus that you could call downright Teilhardian. “Gonna crawl upon the shore / Roll in the mud and the clay / Like the swallows of San Juan / I’m gonna get back, someday.” Here’s hoping Escovedo’s liver holds up, so we can listen in on the rest of his journey home.