3.5 stars (out of 4)
Alejandro Escovedo comes out brawling on his 11th studio album in two decades, “Big Station” (Fantasy/Concord). The Texas-based singer-songwriter just turned 61, but he’s never had a higher profile, thanks to recent collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, and his music has never sounded bolder.
“I can take a punch, I can take a swing,” Escovedo barks on “Man of the World,” a self-mocking ode to a guy who struts from disaster to disaster – a compressed history of a career marked by wrong turns.
Escovedo’s ability to synthesize music from a wide variety of sources – he’s blended everything from classical music to punk in the same song – has made him tough to pin down. But in producer Tony Visconti, the legendary figure behind the early work of David Bowie and T. Rex, among others, Escovedo has found a true artistic foil. This is their third album in a row together, and it’s their best, in large measure because Escovedo’s growing confidence as a band leader and especially as a vocalist has never been more apparent.
Big hooks anchor many of the songs, with chant-like choruses and wordless harmonies that recall ‘70s glam-rockers such as T. Rex and the New York Dolls – artists for whom Escovedo and Visconti share a deep affinity. By coloring in the rhythmic and textural details, the arrangements match the nuance in Escovedo’s songs – there’s a darkness underlying his most upbeat songs, and a shimmer of melody that lifts even the most introspective tracks.
Visconti and Escovedo put a shimmy in the step of the title track and “Party People,” accent the big beat of “Headstrong Crazy Fools,” and undergird “Common Mistake” with sly syncopations. “Too Many Tears” snakes through a jungle of distortion. The songs are rooted in the American Southwest and Mexico, and with that comes a sense of spaciousness in Visconti’s wide-screen production. It gives Escovedo plenty of room to stretch as a vocalist. From the haunted film-noir narrative of “Sally Was a Cop” to the beautiful Latin pop ballad “Sabor a Mi,” he has never sounded more commanding.