When a musician has been recording for 35 years and released 11 studio albums, it’s hard to come to a consensus on his best record, or even his most creative period. Such is the case with Texas singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. Some will say the quiet masterpiece of his 1998 live album More Miles Than Money represents his best work. Others cite 2001’s A Man Under the Influence as an example of his abilities as a musical chameleon. And still others argue that his near-death scare with hepatitis-C in 2005 (he has since fully recovered) has resulted in his most consistent creative period. What is clear is that the 61 year-old Escovedo can still make fantastic music, and his 12th album, Big Station, is no exception.
For the third straight time, Escovedo is paired with producer Tony Visconti, whose work with David Bowie and T. Rex are legendary. But Visconti has also produced artists as diverse as Kristeen Young, Adam Ant, and the Dandy Warhols; in other words, artists whose music runs the gamete in almost the same way that Escovedo’s does. Escovedo has been known to incorporate jazz, blues, classical, and salsa into his rock, sometimes in the same song, and on Big Station he once again does a little bit of everything. “Man of the World” kicks off the album with a rocking, self-deprecating jolt as Escovedo sings “I’m frustrated, hot, overrated,” but also notes “I can take a punch, I can take a swing.” “Party People” is another rocker that lets Escovedo’s background singers (who appear on nearly every track) really let loose alongside an energized brass section. On the flipside, “San Antonio Rain” is a slow acoustic song that invokes Warren Zevon, and “Can’t Make Me Run” sounds like a film noir soundtrack (or possibly a recent Leonard Cohen song) with its stuttering bass line and with muted trumpets and saxophones.
Escovedo, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, has never been shy about incorporating his nationality into his music and Big Station features two disparate but wonderful allusions to his heritage. “Sally Was a Cop,” one of the best songs on the record, is a harsh look at the Mexican drug wars. The song hearkens back to “Wave” from A Man Under the Influence in terms of its stark imagery, with Escovedo singing about “children forced to dig the graves of their fathers.” On the other hand, the record’s final track, “Sabor A Mi,” is a soft Latin ballad with a shimmering steel guitar twirling around Escovedo’s vocals.
Because the good songs are so strong, others can’t help but be weaker by comparison: “Common Mistake” relies far too much on a bass riff stolen from Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” and Escovedo’s songwriting partner Chuck Prophet clearly instills his Tom Petty-esque influence on “Headstrong Crazy Fools,” which never quite gels. “Too Many Tears” is five minutes of unbroken bass riff that begs for a rocking chorus that never materializes, and the song overstays its welcome.
However, these are somewhat minor quibbles, as overall Big Station is a typically excellent Alejandro Escovedo record. Perhaps no one can decide on the “best” of his albums because they’re all good, and Big Station is a welcome addition to the canon.