“Next time you see me, I’m going to smile for the camera like some wild man from Pompei,” muses Alejandro Escovedo in the midst of Swallows of San Juan, a tune of quiet but powerfully reflective fortitude featured on his new Real Animal album.
That’s Escovedo, for you – an artist of tremendous musical depth and grace who can’t help but get his hands dirty as he tells a tale. Perhaps that’s because, for all his gifts at turning a poetic phrase, Escovedo remains a rocker at heart
For Real Animal, a potently electric album that takes considerable stock of an often extreme rock ‘n’ life, veteran David Bowie and T. Rex producer Tony Visconti brought Escovedo back to Lexington, where he has maintained a feverishly devout fanbase for over 12 years, to record 13 new songs co-written by fellow rock/pop stylist Chuck Prophet at Saint Claire Recording Company on Spurr Rd.
The wonderful local twist to Real Animal aside, the album acknowledges two of Escovedo’s former bands in song. The San Francisco-based, punk-bred Nuns are chronicled in the aptly-titled Nuns Song, although the tune works just as well as a more generalized rock club snapshot with Escovedo’s usual flair for party-crashing choruses and rock ‘n’ roll strings. A booming Visconti mix then peppers on some warped Sir Douglas Quintet-style keyboards while lyrics of fitting obstinance (“We don’t want your approval”) embellish the mood.
Later, Chip n’ Tony pumps up the backbeat as it reflects on the more Americana-savvy ‘80s days spent with Rank and File. There’s also a keen nod to Iggy Pop, whose I Wanna Be Your Dog has long been a hearty staple of Escovedo’s live shows, on Real Animal‘s title tune.
At times, the Visconti touch pushes points in songs that don’t need the salesmanship, as in the odd macho backup chorus that intrudes on the nocturnal New York grime of Chelsea Hotel. But that’s nitpicking. Add in the more pastoral revelry of Escovedo’s youth depicted in both Swallows and the album-closing Slow Down, and you have an engaging and complete portrait of a rock ‘n’ original cut in a city that has long been taken by his vibrant animal language.
That Real Animal hits stores the same day as Party Intellectuals is unexpectedly fitting. Take the darker narrative of Escovedo’s Chelsea Hotel, fatten the groove factor and then warp, distort and extend the instrumental vocabulary, sometimes to the point of melodic anarchy, and you have a sense of where New York guitarist Marc Ribot is coming from on this debut disc with his extraordinary new power trio, Ceramic Dog.
Opening with a brutally unrecognizable cover of The Doors’ Break on Through, Party Intellectuals flirts with thick, uneasy electro-funk on its title track before the guitar fire recoils into a ocean of static, percussive chatter and spoken word dissonance (“You did alright in jail; you turned out to be quite a punk”) on When We Were Young and We Were Freaks.
Ribot has long been a wily and versatile improviser (he has shifted, just over the last year, from recording sessions with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss to performances with John Zorn). Somewhat suitably, Party Intellectuals reflects similar extremes in the summery globetrotting adventures of Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch, the Cuban strut of For Malena, the bouncy synth-driven funk of Pinch and the disconnected thunder and plump power chords of the 10 minute Midost.
While its musical view is often global in scope, Party Intellectuals is like driving through the darker recesses of New York after midnight on a balmy summer evening. The windows are down, the sounds are rich and all the ragged, roaring harmonies that result make for one sublime joyride.