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Alejandro Escovedo soundtracks life on "Real Animal"

By Brian Baker, July 2008

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With the end of The True Believers, inevitably Escovedo began exploring a solo path. In 1992, he channeled the grief and despair of his estranged wife's death into his solo debut, "Gravity," an intense piece that introduced the qualities that would come to be associated with all of Escovedo's works; a brilliant sense of musical history, a chilling and insightful lyrical honesty and an amazing knack for displaying power through raucous volume and relative quiet.

In spite of almost universal acclaim, "Gravity" and its follow-up, "Thirteen Years," sold sparsely and thus began a long pattern of critical praise and commercial rejection of Escovedo's work. Through a number of label affiliations (Watermelon, Ryko, Bloodshot and now Back Porch/EMI) Escovedo produced a string of albums that continually flirted with brilliance ("With These Hands," "Bourbonitis Blues," "A Man Under the Influence"), but rarely rose above cult status sales figures. Still in all, he remained a critic's darling; in 1998, 2 years before the end of the '90s, No Depression famously and prematurely hailed Escovedo as "The Artist of the Decade."

To counteract his lack of commercial success, Escovedo stepped up his touring schedule to an almost inhuman pace since it was his only enduring source of income. In 2002, Escovedo's rapidly declining health was pegged by his doctor as the onset of hepatitis C - a natural outcome considering Escovedo's tour diet of alcohol and drugs - but Escovedo believed he could control with moderation.

In 2003, Escovedo was at a gig in Phoenix when he began throwing up blood backstage, which continued when he started the show. He was rushed to a local hospital where he nearly died; he was ultimately advised to stay off the road for a complete rest and to get sober.

With no touring possible and no insurance to cover the bills, Escovedo's paychecks dried up. His manager, Heinz Geissler, arranged for an all-star group of artists to cover Escovedo's work on a double album called "Por Vida," the proceeds for which would help defray some of songwriter's massive medical bills.

In the course of events, Escovedo divorced another wife and married his current wife, poet Kim Christoff, who was instrumental in getting Escovedo back on his feet after coming so close to the brink.

Escovedo's biography is inextricably woven into the tapestry of "Real Animal." The album' genesis came when Escovedo returned to Southern California to record 2006's "The Boxing Mirror." Inspired by familiar sights, which triggered long dormant memories, Escovedo began thinking in terms of his next album.

"In that period, when I was ill and post-illness, my wife and I stayed in Santa Monica, and that was the territory I kind of hung out in," says Escovedo. "It brought back a lot of the memories of growing up in that area and the different bands and music I heard back then. I thought 'This might make an interesting story.' So that was really the basis for the whole idea to make this record. It was like a musical memoir."

Escovedo didn't carry the memoir concept to the obvious extent of making it chronological, but relied on the pulse of the songs to determine their running order. "The story weaves," says Escovedo. "I think you can kind of connect the dots throughout this whole sequence of songs."

One of the biggest departures for Escovedo is the constant presence of singer/songwriter/guitarist Chuck Prophet, who boasts a cultish fan base of his own. Prophet and Escovedo co-wrote every song on "Real Animal," a new wrinkle for Escovedo.

"I felt that Chuck was the perfect candidate for this because he had grown up in Southern California, he was bands in the '80s when I was in a band - he was in Green on Red, I was in The True Believers - so he knew all the characters, and he knew the history of the music," says Escovedo. "He's a brilliant songwriter and a great guitar player, and I wanted this to be a guitar album. So, I felt he was perfect. It was not just fulfilling as an artistic endeavor, but we became very close and we had a great time making the record."

Beginning in late 2006, Escovedo and Prophet spent a year writing the songs, which was produced by veteran rock producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie), the boardsman behind many of Escovedo's favorite artist's albums. The first song the pair wrote together was the exquisite "Slow Down," which brings "Real Animal" to an elegant close.

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