All Ears

All Ears

By John DeFore

Al's friends, and their friends

One surprising omission in the upcoming tribute to Alejandro Escovedo (see Gilbert Garcia's article "True Believer") is the absence of Los Lobos, whose members are longtime pals of Al and whose cross-cultural music certainly has much in common with his. Maybe the Wolves were too busy making The Ride (Mammoth), their new guest-heavy record which - coming at their 30th anniversary as a band and containing some new versions of old favorites - is something of a tribute album in itself.

Ranging from Mexican-American dance music to kooky rock and (in a highlight fusion of "Wicked Rain" and "Across 110th Street," featuring Bobby Womack) heavy soul, the disc boasts most of the styles the band has explored over the years. Rock en español stars Cafe Tacuba pop up here, collaboration-crazy Elvis Costello steps in there, and the sublime Mavis Staples covers "Someday" as if it were written in the choir loft at the world's funkiest church. More a party than an album, the disc contains many obvious pleasures and a few unexpected ones.

(Incidentally, Los Lobos' Steve Berlin co-produced the new Angélique Kidjo record on Columbia, Oyaya! As you might expect, the disc is a cross-continental, multicultural affair exploring the give and take between African and Latin grooves.)

One guest on The Ride, Dave Alvin, just made his first album for Yep Roc Records. Like the Lobos disc, it's a trip down memory lane: Ashgrove is named for a famous Los Angeles blues club, and appropriately enough the disc contains bluesier material than Alvin has recorded in recent years. Fans of King of California and Blackjack David needn't fear - the old Blaster is still in touch with his sensitive side, and proves it on tunes like "The Man in the Bed." But a new label deal is a good time to shake things up a bit, and Alvin flexes some muscles here that he lately has saved for his fiery live shows.

Some of Alvin and Los Lobos' old Los Angeles contemporaries have their own new releases popping up in stores. Make the Music Go Bang (Rhino) is a two-disc X comp, due on July 27, that follows Rhino's excellent reissues of the original albums. In addition to the hits, the set features a fistful of live tracks, a bunch of album tunes in the edits made for 7-inch releases, and some of the twangy songs they recorded under the moniker The Knitters.

Onetime Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway remains prolific if a little underexposed; his new Snakebite (Redfly) is structured in three acts, which makes sense for a storyteller working in Hollywood's long shadow. Ridgway is still most compelling when he's spinning little film-noir fantasies, but there's plenty of other stuff here - weird carnival music, theological train-hopping ballads, and a disillusioned talking-blues tribute to his old band.

More a party than album, The Ride contains many obvious pleasures and a few unexpected ones.
Getting back to the Escovedo benefit, participant Chris Stamey returns from a nearly decade-long absence as a recording artist with Travels in the South (Yep Roc). A nostalgic and sometimes melancholy batch of songs, it's as beautifully produced as you'd expect from a guy who keeps busy these days turning knobs for folks like Whiskeytown and (wait for it) Alejandro Escovedo. Longtime production clients Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary help out here, as does Ben Folds.

The Cowboy Junkies, who contribute a faithful version of "I Don't Need You" to Por Vida, have a new one out, even if their recent releases sound an awful lot like the same record over and over again. Maybe Margo Timmins' voice is just too seductive - it's a little hard to pay attention to her brother's lyrics with that lazy whisper in your ear.

Finally, a trip to the reissue bin unearths two fairly recent and barely-known titles from a very young Freddy Fender, whose early Spanish-language rock 'n' roll recordings foreshadow Escovedo, Los Lobos, et al. Rock 'N Roll and Interpreta El Rock! are both on Arhoolie, which has given them budget pricing to cushion the fact that they're so short both could fit easily on one CD. Recorded before Fender found fame, many of these songs are unforgivably derivative; "Vamos A Bailar," for instance, is a carbon copy of the late Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," but Charles is credited nowhere on the package. Still, it's awfully fun stuff in a mode that obviously stuck with Fender as he moved into more original directions. •