Alejandro EscovedoReal Animal (Back Porch/Manhattan/EMI)
Alejandro Escovedo never just wore his heart on his sleeve. He's laboriously stitched his very soul into his material, beginning with his earliest compositions. As a musician, he nearly self-destructed, rising like a phoenix and reinventing himself amid marriages, suicide, several generations of children, life-threatening disease, and a remarkable gift for songwriting. With a panoply of career-defining albums to his name, Real Animal maps that journey without misstep. It doesn't hurt that roots-quaking guitarist and peer Chuck Prophet co-wrote with Escovedo or that production by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy) feeds Animal a sharper edge ("Smoke"). "We don't want your approval – it's 1978," throws down the opening lines of "Nuns Song" well into the album, a challenge also tossed out on the second track, the brutal "Chelsea Hotel '78." In that, Escovedo revisits New York's famed residence hotel as unwitting lyrical witness to Sid and Nancy's decline, while "Real as an Animal" pounds Iggy Pop's sex-beat and "Chip n' Tony" twangs with cow-punk abandon. "Hollywood Hills" posits Springsteen lovers from New Jersey into the neon lure of California next to the elegiac "Swallows of San Juan." And Real Animal bleeds, as on "Golden Bear," Escovedo's melancholy "Wicked Game"-by-way-of-"Ashes to Ashes" conversation with hepatitis C. "Why me?" he sings, throbbing with exquisite pain and no soft solution in reply. Maybe the answer is in the bluesy "People," the singer musing that "we still got time, but never as much as we think." For Escovedo fans that have followed the local star through the Nuns, Rank and File, the True Believers, and Buick MacKane, Real Animal bares teeth and soul in rock & roll payback.