On his two most recent studio albums, Alejandro Escovedo saw a career that stretches back more than 25 years grab the serious, lasting attention of the rock mainstream.
Admittedly, Kentucky audiences recognized the literate, emotive and stylistic depth of the Texas songsmith's music as far back as the mid-'90s through regular club appearances that were backed by such stellar albums as Gravity, 13 Years, With These Hands and the superb live collection More Miles Than Money. Escovedo's songs had a folk artist's gift for narrative and were often delivered in either a chamber-like acoustic setting draped by cello and violin or with a tirelessly electric rock 'n' roll heart that summoned the spirits of The Stooges, The MC5 and Mott the Hoople.
But it was with the more streamlined music of 2008's Real Animal and 2010's Street Songs of Love that Escovedo — with the help of veteran producer Tony Visconti (of David Bowie and T. Rex fame) and acclaimed San Francisco pop stylist Chuck Prophet (who co-wrote most of the albums' material) — that Escovedo tightened the electric grip of his songs, earning accolades from the likes of The New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Of course, the loyal Kentucky following could take heart as the rest of the country took notice: Escovedo recorded Real Animal and Street Songs of Love in Lexington.
But for his new album, Big Station, due for release June 5, Escovedo wanted a change.
For starters, he and Prophet prepped for writing with some intense listening sessions. They soaked up music by The Clash (specifically, 1980's album Sandinista!), New York rock troupe Suicide, desert nomad ensemble Tinariwen, Algerian singer/activist Rachid Taha and veteran punk-soul band Mink DeVille. Then the songwriting pair went across the border to Mexico. And a lot of what they saw wasn't pretty.
"The album was really about looking outward at some of the things Chuck and I had seen together just as tourists in Mexico," Escovedo said by phone last week. "It was about the way the media had kind of overwhelmed us in some cases, like being able to see 35 bodies dumped by the side of the road in Veracruz. You couldn't help but be taken by the effect the cartels have had on the people. Those were the images we were faced with. The world has changed. That's what we wanted to write about."
One of the more absorbing stories from his travels emerges in a Big Station song called Sally Was a Cop. It depicts a Mexican girl loyal to her homeland to the point of having to defend it militarily.
"Even in a little tourist area like Cabo San Lucas, where people would surf around, the militia was quite present. We were very much aware that soldiers were around us at all times. Chuck was also really taken by the poverty we saw in Mexico. So we wrote this tune about a girl who wants to be part of her community and help her community but is put into a position of having to defend it against all the horrific things happening around her."
This isn't to say Big Station is all doom and despair. Among its highlights is San Antonio Rain, a warm, spacious-sounding serenade to the Texas city where Escovedo was born.
"Last year, we began to play in San Antonio again. It was wonderful to reconnect with my relatives and see so many old cousins, uncles and aunts. The song deals with the drought that hit Texas so hard, too. But it's mostly about getting back to where you're from. There was just something about that that was very special."
There are some changes and holdovers on the team that made Big Station, too. Two longtime mates — drummer Hector Munoz and guitarist David Pulkingham — have been replaced by Chris Searles (who toured as Escovedo's drummer after Gravity's release in 1992) and Billy White (a onetime contributor to arena rocker Don Dokken's solo projects who spent subsequent years learning to play flamenco guitar). Escovedo also chose to cut Big Station in Austin, but he hinted that he might return to Lexington to make his next record.
Visconti, the producer, and Prophet remain team captains. The alliance with Prophet is especially intriguing, because Escovedo has only occasionally collaborated with other songwriters in the past.
"Part of Alejandro's gift is that he is easy company," Prophet said before his performance at Cosmic Charlie's in Lexington earlier this month. "He has the ability to make you feel like you've known him your whole life. Of course, in my case, I actually have known him a long time.
"But when you're songwriting with someone, you need to feel uninhibited. I think that's what we bring out in each other. That's where the good ideas come from, because they're unfiltered."
Of writing with Prophet, Escovedo said, "At the core of it all is friendship. We have a real blast of a time just hanging out. I suppose we're always trying to outdo each other in a real friendly way. But it just makes for a great creative process that is nothing but a pleasure."