Alejandro Escovedo on Austin then and now
Also reviewed: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Patti Smith
‘Austin's changed, it's true."
Bracing words for local ears right at the start of "Bottom of the World," an upbeat sing-along from Alejandro Escovedo's newest album, "Big Station," which is out Tuesday. It's a deceiving sort of song because atop a breezy guitar, organ and drums Escovedo looks out from behind the eyes of a working class Joe who's seen the world he once knew very well bid him farewell.
The tricky part — where Escovedo and songwriting partner Chuck Prophet show their songwriting chops — is it's not a bummer of a song, even though it could be since pretty much anyone who's called fast-growing Austin home for more than five minutes likes to lament about "the way things used to be."
If anyone's justified to moan about the city's skyline quickly filling with high-rise buildings it's Escovedo, a resident for more than 30 years. Asked about the song and what he was trying to say with it (the city's name appears only in that opening line), the veteran rocker seems at peace with the city that's growing steadily around him:
Working man blues: " ‘Bottom of the World' sounds like it's from a dark perspective, but it's really about a guy who has worked hard all his life, looking past all the years he's put into working and surviving and feeling a lot of melancholy about it, even though I hate to say that but it's the truth. I say, ‘There used to be a phone booth on every corner and you used to call me up just to say my name,' so he's longing."
Does he lament how fast the city is growing? "Not as much as some people. There's an old guard here who really wants to protect and hang on to what Austin was. My life is in South Austin. I've always loved South Austin, and Austin period. I've been here since 1980 and can't see myself moving anywhere else. I think that the changes sometimes they're difficult to swallow in a community that claims to be the live music capital of the world, when they tore down all the clubs because of all the dotcoms that were moving in, and offices needed to be built. They used the music as kind of a bait or a bargaining tool to attract like-minded people who liked music and were smart and could work for these corporations. And then you talk about them closing down clubs and we've had a lot of problems with noise issues since all that happened."
Drivers beware: "The big problem with Austin is it just wasn't built for this many cars so we're having a bit of trouble working that out. That's why so many people, even if you're against high-rises as far as development is concerned, in a way it's better because you don't drive as much, which is nice because you can walk to everything like how I can just walk to my gigs in town. So I guess in that respect I don't see it as a negative."
Alejandro Escovedo - ‘Big Station' (Fantasy)
"Big Station" feels like the third volume of a trilogy that started with 2008's "Real Animal," wherein Escovedo moved back into full-bore, multiple-guitar rock, the kind he cut his teeth on with Nuns, Rank and File and True Believers. It's his third in a row with co-writer Chuck Prophet and another one produced by Tony Visconti.
But "Big Station" also feels like the final chapter of something. He's made a few lineup changes (no more David Pulkingham or Hector Munoz) and the songs are calmer, more nuanced, a little more melancholic.
Escovedo said he looked to the Clash's wildly eclectic "Sandinista!" for inspiration, which translates here in to rhythmic variation ("Can't Make Me Run"), hideous tales of the Mexican drug wars ("Sally Was a Cop") and occasional beer-ad saxophone (a couple of 'em). Texas is all over the place here: "Bottom of the World" looks at the world from Austin to a desiccated life in the "San Antonio Rain." Mexican composer Alvaro Carrillo's "Sabor a Mi" closes out the album, Escovedo's first ever recording in Spanish. It is a mark of strength that one listens to "Big Station" and has no idea where he will go next.
— Joe Gross
Neil Young and Crazy Horse - ‘Americana' (Warner Bros.)
So it's been 16 years since the still-excellent "Broken Arrow," the last album with the full-strength Crazy Horse lineup of drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank Sampedro. (Everyone but Sampedro worked on 2003's "Greendale," but that's not the same.) So it's been awhile and what better way to loosen up than crank out a bunch of folk songs ("Tom Dooley," "Gallows Pole"), childhood standards ("Oh Susannah," "Clementine") and doo wop (the absolutely least funky cover of The Sihouettes' "Get a Job" ever waxed)? None, apparently.
It's more than a goof (check out the liner notes for explanations of the folk roots — or justifications — of everything here) and it's great to hear Crazy Horse wail in whatever context, but "Americana" never feels like more than a rehearsal tape either (you can hear a few seconds of studio chatter here and there at the end of tracks).
There are a few keepers ("Wayfarin' Stranger," "This Land is Your Lands," "High Flyin' Bird") but in 2012, it's kind of hard not to think of Jimmy Fallon upon hearing Shakey sing "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," despite the song's Second Coming/union organizing roots. A crunchy placeholder.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse headline the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 13.
— Joe Gross
Patti Smith - ‘Banga' (Columbia)
We last heard from Ms. Smith as a prose writer — her stunning memoir "Just Kids" picked up a much-deserved National Book Award and her fans probably would have been perfectly happy if she stuck with that.
Then again, as someone who has always thought her '90s and scant '00s studio output was a little more consistent (but not more exciting) than she was given credit for and her live show still much better than most, I was fully prepared for "Banga" to be another perfectly acceptable Smith record and hope for a tour.
But "Banga" is a keeper, the most easily enjoyable Smith album since "Dream of Life."
Her last album, "Twelve," was a set of covers, which was too much of something she can be great at, so it's nice to hear just one — Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," which is given a stately piano reading. "This is a Girl" is a moving eulogy for Amy Winehouse, Tom Verlaine's guitar blips are welcome sound on "April Fools," and "Maria" blends torchy R&B balladeers and poetry mumble as only she can. "Constantine's Dream" reminds that she and her crew can improvise something that sounds finished better than almost anyone. But it's the riffs I keep coming back to, such as the driving hook on "Fuji-San," the title track's soulful spiral. For best results, play loud.