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Alejandro Escovedo

Our critics' picks in new releases

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The credits for some of Alejandro Escovedo's songs list a lineup more familiar to baroque chamber music--violin, double bass, cellos, tremelo pizzicato cello and orchestral percussion--than roots rock. But despite this ornate instrumentation, there's a sweet spareness to his compositions--maybe it's the rattling of the castanets or the pedal steel's whine, or the occasional mandolin line. Live, Escovedo often mixes orchestral arrangements with a garage rock edge and a country twang, and he's done just that on his latest release, A Man Under the Influence.

In a recent interview in No Depression, Escovedo referred to A Man Under the Influence as being "more pop than my other albums." But the acoustic guitar is too raw, the lyrics too deep and the music too sincere to simply call this "pop," commercial or otherwise. More a glimpse into Escovedo's own cultural history than his take on pop culture, Under the Influence reaches back to "another time, across the river," by integrating two tracks from a play Escovedo co-wrote commemorating his father's journey from Mexico to the United States. The opening tracks, "Wave" and "Rosalie," are taken from this play, and these songs are bigger than the album--bigger than any musical genre.

With the help of local producer Chris Stamey, Escovedo has strayed here from his usual influences--the Stones, plus the iconic palette of Texas singer-songwriters. Still, he can't let go of the rocker inside him, and hopefully he never will. On "Follow You Down," he pays tribute to fellow singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, while "Castanets," the album's centerpiece, is as fine a rock 'n' roll standard as has been written in recent years. Lyrically, his knack with a phrase is as keen as ever: "She turns me on like a pick-up truck."

On 1999's Bourbonitis Blues, Escovedo's brilliance flashes and fades with songs like "I Was Drunk" and "Everybody Loves Me," but on A Man Under the Influence, it burns evenly throughout.

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