Relief is something that seldom comes easy for the battered souls who populate the work of Alejandro Escovedo, the most masterful essayist of all things melancholy to come along since Townes Van Zandt. More times than not, relief never comes at all: Instead, men stagger to bed alone, drunk with desolation, booze, and fear; women fight futilely with loneliness and rejection and work hard to cope with their youth becoming something gray and cracked but not yet forgotten; confusion and disappointment run rampant through their lives, haunting the days and ravaging the nights. Escovedo's husky tenor offers little in the way of respite, and the naggingly morose strings with which he adorns his bleak character studies only emphasize the torment that bites at his sad cast of players.
On A Man Under the Influence, his first proper longplayer since 1996's With These Hands, Escovedo hasn't exactly found a place in this world that's all shiny and happy; death, displacement, and shattered love and dreams blow through the songs like tear gas. But there's a sense of hope and faith in life, love, and self forget the odds at hand that underpins its best songs. In "Castanets," he's dogged by the love of a woman he admits he likes best when she's not around, and he drives his conviction home on a roaring riff that could demolish at least half of Exile On Main Street. In "Rhapsody" the kind of song you know upon first listen would be a hit if the world were a better place he's already lost the one who never should've gotten away. But rather than mourn what's lost, he sounds convincingly content with living with the memory, not wallowing in the loss.
Maybe that's because Escovedo has turned his eye to a loss that transcends mere romance and strikes at the heart of his heritage. The highlights of A Man Under the Influence are pulled from his new play By the Hand of the Father, an extended ode to his family's Hispanic heritage and the inherent hardships they endured as immigrants in the States. It's a subject that's driven some of his finest work including "Ballad of the Sun and the Moon," "Nickel and a Spoon," and "With These Hands" and it dominates his latest release even though only two songs are featured from the theatrical work.
They're great ones, though. "Wave" details the tragedy of migration, the crushing hardship and displacement that most often awaits anyone who manages to cross the border without the ultimate face-off with an unfriendly floodlight. "Rosalie," meanwhile, is a love letter both written and sung from one side of the border to the other a testimonial of love and endurance in the face of change, turbulence, and anguish, a flag of faith that is weathered but still standing. As the song builds dramatically to its finish, the pedal steel collapsing on a bed of acoustic guitar and plush bass, the incessant incantation "I love you, Rosalie" almost brings redemption to all the sorrowed lives Escovedo has written about in the past. Like everything on A Man Under the Influence, it is a moment of triumph, a thing of unspeakable beauty. John Floyd
Alejandro Escovedo will be at the Hi-Tone Café on Tuesday, May 1st.
What to make of a mixed-race rock band based in Los Angeles in the mid-'60s that called itself Love? Recorded in that vaunted summer of '67, and remastered and re-released this year, Forever Changes' combination of unpredictable melodic themes, orchestrated acoustic rock textures, Memphian Arthur Lee's quirky and gorgeous vocals, and his often unsettling lyrics had no precedent at the time. Lee was a black man who often sang in a voice that sounded almost comically white. He played with audience expectations of what a black man playing rock-and-roll should sound and look like, opting for a singing voice that shifted easily from effete art rock to Bo Diddley rave-ups. Sonically, the record is unique in its very sparing use of electric guitar. This was a departure for a guitar-laden time when it seemed that every rock guitarist alternated between distorted Claptonesque leads or leaden wah-wah pedal meandering. An unadorned acoustic guitar in 1967 was something of a radical proposition. Love did not have a virtuoso instrumentalist, so they concentrated on songwriting and performance in the studio. They also had an aversion to touring, which kept them from achieving the same prominence as Elektra label-mates the Doors.
So Love never became rock stars and, for all practical purposes, were finished by 1970's False Start. Arthur Lee went on to a patchy solo career plagued by personal demons and currently is serving time in a California prison on a weapons charge. Rhino has done the usual solid job here by including outtakes, demos, alternate mixes, and hard-to-find singles in this re-release package, but the liner notes by former rock critic Ben Edmonds are a little too softcore and revisionist for a band that blew a massive talent in a big way. Edmonds tends toward hippie nostalgia in a way that Arthur Lee and Love never did. Forever Changes just might be the only cultural artifact from the Summer of Love worth keeping. Ross Johnson
This long-awaited gospel album from Kate Campbell is a real joy. I haven't heard anything this funky and quintessentially Southern in a gospel album for a long time (a few things Ray Charles did spring to mind). With a good chunk of original tunes, a few artful covers, and some soulful reworkings of Victorian and earlier hymns, Campbell delivers more of the Southern Gothic character for which she's renowned. Recorded at the venerable Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Wandering Strange boasts electric guitar and organ trills that add a wonderfully authentic sound to these classic tunes. The daughter of a Mississippi preacher, Campbell absorbed gospel music practically through osmosis, singing in her daddy's church from an early age. At the same time she was listening to '70s soul out of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, as well as Southern rock and pop. Wandering Strange is a vivid amalgam of all these influences Southern to the core but universal in its yearning. Campbell's original tunes, to her credit, stand proudly side by side with antique hymns she transforms into something of her own.
Wandering Strange kicks off with a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "The House You Live In." "Come Thou Fount," with lyrics penned in 1758, is resurrected with mandolin and spirited electric guitar flourishes. Campbell's pellucid vocals are perfectly suited to her otherworldly reworking of the early-19th century tune "The Prodigal." My favorite cut, "The Last Song," sounds like something straight out of the Hi Records stable, with that signature organ sound and lush, emotive background singers. (Cindy Walker and Ava Aldridge, who sang behind Aretha Franklin on several classics, provide back-up.) And, appropriately enough, Campbell finishes the record with a hidden track, a song Elvis recorded, "Miracle of the Rosary." It was an oddly mystical song for a poor Baptist boy from Mississippi to cover but entirely fitting in the context of this wonderful, soulful album. n Lisa Lumb
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.