Album Reviews: The Boxing Mirror by Alejandro EscovedoIn April 2003, Alejandro Escovedo collapsed after a show in Phoenix and was subsequently diagnosed with Hepatitis C. "Arizona," the opening track on his first studio album since those dark days, makes it clear that Escovedo is a changed man. "I turned my back on me," he sings atop a rich backdrop, spacious and disorienting like the desert. It's not a catchy song, per se, or even a pleasant one; instead, its design seems more about establishing mood and motif. In setting the table, Escovedo also shows off his fine crew of collaborators, led by producer John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame) and guitarist and longtime pal Jon Dee Graham. Unquestionably, it's a team that appreciates a good melody, and can blend the vigor and enthusiasm of youth -- a near-death experience surely helps to recapture those holy grails -- with the chops and hard lessons of age.
From the intimately personal opener -- which delves into Escovedo's failed health and subsequent forced sobriety and, more peripherally, the beginning of his marriage -- the singer/songwriter looks for outside help with inspiration, leading to the cryptic "Dear Head on the Wall" (co-written by poet and wife Kim Christoff), which leans on a agitated-sounding string section. Escovedo has a lot of character as a vocalist, but he doesn't have terrific range and is slightly overestimated as a lyricist, both of which hinder his dramatic impact at times. Cale does his part by cranking up the noir and still returning to a happy center like the pretty but bland "Looking For Love." Escovedo shows himself plenty capable of vulnerability on the aching singalong "I Died a Little Today," and it's one of the several intersections on The Boxing Mirror where it's impossible to separate the back story from the song.
Musically, Escovedo is quite versatile, and never stands in the same place for long. Stately ruminations like the title track, built around a simple martial beat and some dignified tickling of the ivories, stand side-by-side with generously layered rock-dance parties like "Take Your Place." There are some politely fiery guitar sections throughout, appropriately for a man who got his start in punk-influenced outfits nearly three decades ago. His old bandmate Graham gets to unleash a few times, providing tunes like "Notes On Air" with an adrenaline shot. "Break This Time" and the tense "Sacramento & Polk" crank up the volume, too, sounding like an extremely accomplished bar band. Fickle listeners hoping for home run singles may be underwhelmed, but for those who scour the plains of desert Americana and the pages of Paste magazine, contemporary albums don't get much better. - Adam McKibbin, The Red Alert
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