Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
For many music fans, two of the most wince-inducing words are “concept album.” Add “cinematic” along with “orchestration” and the nightmares begin. And yes, this new disc from redoubtable Texas based singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo proudly boasts that somewhat lofty description in its promotional literature.
But don’t flee screaming in fear. Escovedo is too much of a veteran and established pro to get bogged down pushing some convoluted narrative in lieu of quality songwriting. Rather these 17 tracks examine the hot-button political topic of immigration; telling of two men, one from Mexico, one from Italy, and their trials and tribulations entering the U.S. Escovedo often uses the first person as a narrator which makes the account feel more individual. While there are plenty of — arguably too many — lyrics setting the scene, the songs are strong enough to carry the story without buckling under the “concept” pressure.
Tracks like the tough-strutting riff rocker “Outlaw For You” that name checks Johnny Thunders, James Dean, Allen Ginsberg and other iconic figures, and the bluesy mid-tempo “How Many Times,” don’t seem to have a direct connection to the story. The music was recorded in Villafranca, Italy with an instrumental ensemble named Don Antonio. Yet the sound isn’t far removed from previous Escovedo releases recorded closer to home. Guest vocalists Joe Ely (who provides an eerie spoken word part on the well, cinematic, sprawling title track) and Peter Perrett (from UK post-punkers The Only Ones on the pop rocking “Waiting for Me”) also appear to add diverse textures.
The album is split in half by the instrumental “Amor Puro” which sounds like a Los Lobos B side. And even though the angry, blistering rocker “Fury and Fire” (“I can’t believe they want to take my dad away … they call us rapists/ so we build a bigger wall/ We’re gonna tear it down”) and the raw, distorted guitar driven Tom Waits-styled “MC Overload” appear later in the program, the momentum dissipates slightly in the disc’s final third. Freddie Trujillo’s spoken word story “Rio Navidad” about a confrontation with a racist is interesting once but it slows things down and isn’t something you’ll likely play twice.
A cameo from the MC5’s Wayne Kramer on first single “Sonica USA,” with its twisted sax and grinding guitar, is another highlight on this hour-long, widescreen venture. Escovedo is in fine, emotional voice throughout, especially on ballads like the lovely “Cherry Blossom Rain.”
As with the best concept sets, you don’t need to follow the story, or even know there is one, to enjoy these songs, since most stand on their own. They may not be the best or catchiest ones Escovedo has written, but this is one of the most passionate, relevant, politically charged and personal projects he has released in a career pushing 40 years. It’s injected with fire, fury and a thoughtful treatise of the immigrant issue from firsthand experience. But most importantly, he puts the music first, as it always should be.