True believer

True believer

There's no real precedent in rock 'n' roll history for the career of Alejandro Escovedo. Working in a genre perennially associated with youth, he didn't play an instrument until well into his twenties, didn't write songs until well into his thirties, and didn't think of fronting a band until he was pushing 40. But over the last 12 years, Escovedo has emerged as one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his time, even earning an "artist of the decade" nod from No Depression magazine in 1998.

There are several reasons for his bullet-proof rep with critics: He has a perfect punk pedigree, opening - as a member of the Nuns - for the Sex Pistols in 1978 at their final concert, moving into seminal cowpunk with Rank and File, and helping to define indie-rock's mid-'80s Americana fascination with the True Believers; his bio contains much drama, from the 1991 suicide of his estranged wife, Bobbi, to his current battle with Hepatitis C; and, finally, he writes relentlessly dark songs about his own drunken misery. We all know critics snort that stuff with a straw.

Escovedo is no great shakes as a tunesmith and his plain-spoken lyrics are often just as banal as they are blunt. Likewise, his homely voice is merely serviceable. Ultimately, his greatest gifts are his arranging skills, his unerring musical taste, his willingness to put unusual combinations of musicians together, and the flat-out conviction he brings to every note.

Por Vida:
A tribute to the songs
of Alejandro Escovedo

Various Artists

(Or Music)
That's why it was easy to assume that Por Vida, a two-disc tribute to Escovedo's music, might fall flat with his work-a-day songs in the hands of others. The pleasant surprise is how well Escovedo's catalog holds up, thanks to a well-chosen collection of underground veterans (Calexico, Cowboy Junkies, Minus 5), friends (Chris Stamey, Charlie Sexton), former bandmates (Jon Dee Graham), and relatives (niece Sheila E, and brothers Pete, Javier and Mario).

There are plenty of highlights: Calexico's accordion-driven "Wave," Peter Case's raucous "The End," John Cale's spooky, Jim Morrison-like reading of "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (Escovedo's finest song), and the gorgeous harmonies of the Jayhawks' "Last to Know." More than Escovedo's own commendable, well-crafted releases, this set makes the case for him as a major musical force.

Gilbert Garcia