It’s really quite amazing how many gifted performers there are in the world of popular music who seem to fly under most people’s radar. Part of the problem is that most of them aren’t ever going to find themselves getting what you’d call extensive radio play or being the flavour of the week. One thing that most of these folk seem to have in common is a passionate love for what they do and for the energy that is so integral to playing Rock & Roll.
In most of these folk’s hands Rock & Roll is still the music of the streets, and has a wild and untamed feel to that makes it just a little unsafe – just like Rock & Roll should be. That was the big attraction to Punk when it came along in the seventies, it made Rock & Roll dangerous again, gave it back the edge that had been smoothed away by corporate decision makers and pretentious progressive rockers.
A musician who has slid under my radar for the last 30 years has been Alejandro Excovedo. I know it sounds sort of silly, but after listening to his latest release, Real Animal on Manhattan Records, I can’t help but think that he sounds just like what a musician from New York City should sound like. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a “New York” sound officially like there is a Detroit sound, but there’s something about Alejandro that exclaims New York City in neon lights as bright as any sign on Broadway.
From the tips of his spiked hair to the points of his cowboy boots, and the black clothing and shades in between, he definitely looks the part. His music has that sharp edge and buzz of excitement that makes me think of the streets of New York. From the pure pop sound of the opening song, “Always A Friend”, the raw power of “Chelsea Hotel ’78”, to the nearly sentimental sound of “Sensitive Boys,” Alejandro covers almost all the approaches possible to a Rock & Roll song.
In case I’ve left you with the impression that the music on this disc is bare bones or minimalist, that’s far from the case. Alejandro and producer Tony Visconti have incorporated saxophone, cello, and violin to fill out the sound. Yet in keeping with the overall tone of the disc, one of driving energy and power, those instruments are used in such a manner that they augment the strength of the music without making it sound over produced. In fact I don’t think I’ve heard strings used before in quite the Rock & Roll manner as they’ve been used here.
One of the most striking songs on the disc is “Chelsea Hotel ’78”, where Alejandro recounts what it was like to be living there during the days of Sid and Nancy. He doesn’t romanticize the time like so many others might, but looks at it with cool dispassion and a fair bit of irony. “We came to live inside the myth / Of everything we’d heard,” he sings in the opening verse.
The dream goes sour, though, and the fantasy of artistic suffering turns ugly when it meets the reality of Sid Vicious’ heroin addiction. Nancy’s body found on the bathroom floor was the final death knell for youthful innocence and a reality check. “So we all moved out / (And it makes perfect sense) / And we all moved on / (And it makes no sense)” is the songs summation, and it could just as easily be the epitaph for the whole sordid and sad affair of Sid and Nancy.
“Sister Lost Soul”, the track that follows directly after “Chelsea Hotel ’78”, is almost the answer to the trauma of those early days. It’s a gentle song, about having managed to survive and grow up with your ability to feel still intact. Everybody around let their hearts grow hard, and the singer feels “like the only one left alive”. Yet he throws the shadow of doubt on his own feelings, by admitting, “You’re not the first or last I’ve lied to / I’m lying to myself right now”. Maybe there’s nothing left but to get what comfort you can, where you can, and be happy with that.
Real Animal contains thirteen songs, and not one of them is longer than four and a half minutes. This disc is a reminder that’s there’s a lot to be said for, and can be said by, a well written, and passionately played Rock & Roll song. Alejandro Escovedo is a throwback to when Rock & Roll was something that scared your parents and made the authorities nervous. Real Animal is a breath of fresh air in the normally stuffy world of pop music.