Alejandro Escovedo, Scissor Sisters, Jimmy Webb and Jackie Greene

Effusive praise and predictions of imminently wild success have greeted just about every Alejandro Escovedo release for the past 20 years, and it's hard to pinpoint why the Austin-based singer/songwriter still languishes in the realm of cult adoration. T

Jul 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Effusive praise and predictions of imminently wild success have greeted just about every Alejandro Escovedo release for the past 20 years, and it’s hard to pinpoint why the Austin-based singer/songwriter still languishes in the realm of cult adoration. Clearly he would never have been more than the George Harrison of Rank and File had he remained, but his own True Believers should have been one of the big bands of the ’80s and his solo career has been a brilliantly woven tapestry of gentle acoustic beauty, visceral electric passion and a lyrical power that is both poetically romantic and grittily real. Escovedo has survived personal tragedy, substance abuse, life-threatening health issues and the ignorance of mainstream America to become one of this country’s most highly praised and virtually unknown musical talents.

With a catalog that is almost ridiculously littered with excellence, Escovedo’s latest album, Street Songs of Love, isn’t any likelier to be his breakthrough work. In many ways, Street Songs is a continuation of 2008’s Real Animal, as legendary producer Tony Visconti helms the boards and Escovedo collaborates with songwriter Chuck Prophet once again, with the trio (along with Escovedo’s band) The Sensitive Boys creating a similarly inspired set.

Street Songs’ theme is right up front on its Stonesy lead track, “Anchor,” as Escovedo observes, “I’m in love with love/And it broke me in two/I’m in love with love/So look out babe, it’s gonna break you too.” As usual, when Escovedo turns it up and bears down, he snaps and snarls with the searing power of avowed influences like The Stooges and Mott the Hoople (“Silver Cloud,” “This Bed is Getting Crowded,” “Tender Heart”) and when he slows it down and opens his soul, he touches nerves with a poet’s sensitivity and a surgeon’s skill (“Down in the Bowery,” “After the Meteor Showers,“ “Fall Apart With You”).

The presence of Bruce Springsteen and Ian Hunter — who provide vocals on “Faith” and “Down in the Bowery,” respectively — may attract some of their fan bases who have yet to discover the joys of Escovedo, but the good news contained in Street Songs of Love is that his power to effect listeners on an elemental level remains stronger than ever, even if it’s the same listeners as last time out.

There isn’t a single musical genre or era that the Scissor Sisters feel even remotely hesitant about appropriating for their own gleefully nefarious and generally sexualized purposes. From the very start, the Sisters have presented a pastiche of styles beamed through their 21st-century Disco kaleidoscope.

The New York quintet’s first UK hit was a hypnotic Dance evocation of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” a smash that pushed their next four singles into the UK Top 20 and ultimately made their eponymous 2004 debut album the year’s best selling album in the UK. The Sisters’ 2006 sophomore album, Ta-Dah, was even more diverse, folding Glam Rock and Psychedelia and guest Elton John into their twisted Disco soundscape, and they were rewarded by having both their album and its first single, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’,” in the No. 1 slot on their respective UK charts simultaneously (the album debuted at the top).

The Scissor Sisters’ third album has been more problematic. The band began playing new songs nearly two years ago and sessioned them shortly after, but shelved the recordings as being less than satisfactory. Based on the finally finished product, it was a wise move. Night Work is an absolutely stunning convergence of everything that the Sisters have done so well over the past six years.

The first single, “Fire with Fire,” is a Disco epic, a pulsing dance ballad that starts with a simple Elton John-flecked piano introduction and swells to ABBA-like proportions in the second chorus. “Whole New Way” could have been an outtake from The Bee Gees’ soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, “Harder You Get” sounds like David Bowie at a Donna Summer tribute and the title track erupts from the speakers like a mash-up of The Tubes and Blondie at their ass-shaking, Studio 54 best.

There is no clear definition for what the Scissor Sisters do — call it Electroglamwavetronica — but with Night Work, given its worldwide Top 40 success, they give every indication that they're the best at doing it.

In some respects, the careers of John Hiatt and Jimmy Webb are slightly parallel. Both found more success as songwriters than performers early on and their songwriting successes were ultimately big enough to subsidize their sometimes erratic performing careers. The most pronounced difference is that Hiatt is actually an engaging entertainer and sometimes the best translator of his quirkily inventive songcraft. Webb, on the other hand, can be a spotty presenter of his own work; his admittedly magnificent compositions are often better left in the hands of artists who have the ability to infuse them with the passionate delivery that Webb clearly designed in the writing.

So what are we to make of Webb’s latest album, Just Across the River? First of all, River is a new album in the most liberal sense of the word; there is only one new song in the set list, with the rest of the album comprised of numbers from Webb’s oft-visited songbook. The hook on River is the fresh Country/Bluegrass/Folk arrangements of some of Webb’s most familiar songs and the presence of superstar duet partners and musicians to inhabit these new takes on old favorites.

Some work astonishing well: Lucinda Williams’ well worn rasp is the perfect counterpoint for “Galveston,” Jackson Browne brings a playful gravitas to “P.F. Sloan,” Mark Knopfler is a wonderfully laconic presence on “Highwayman” and Willie Nelson is a natural on “If You See Me Getting Smaller.”

Other choices are more problematic. Billy Joel’s reading of “Wichita Lineman” seems slightly forced, Linda Ronstadt’s crystalline harmonies can’t salvage Webb’s over-singing on “All I Know” and the song that probably should have been River’s centerpiece, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” featuring its most renowned singer, Glen Campbell, is overarranged and winds up being meanderingly busy and a pale imitation of greatness.

Webb’s new song, “Where Words End,” is a beautiful love song and an appropriate addition to his impressive catalog, but it would have likely been exponentially more powerful with Michael McDonald in the lead and Webb in the supporting position. Devout Jimmy Webb fans will find enough to celebrate on Just Across the River but casual listeners or fans of his guests may be a little disappointed in the overall outcome here.

Jackie Greene has been operating in the shadowland bordered by Rock, Folk, Country and Blues for the whole of his career, making them ingredients in his total recipe rather than using them as flavors of the moment, like a good deal of his musical peer group. As a result, Greene has mastered the ability to reference Classic Rock sonics in the pursuit of his contemporary Roots hybrid, skillfully crafting a sound that is simultaneously vibrant and fresh and classically grounded. It is Greene’s particular talent for combining Rock classicism with Americana revisionism and Indie Rock passion that has inspired Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Warren Haynes to include him in their musical projects as they attempt to do largely the same thing.

Greene’s sixth and latest album, Till the Night Comes, is something of a departure from his previous albums, as he offers a slightly more Pop-based version of his rootsy explorations. Greene has always sounded like any number of artists — he found himself painted with the “next Dylan” brush fairly early on — but he was always too smart to fall for that press kit hype and has worked hard to find his own identity within the framework of his natural influences and the sound that results from their impact on him.

Night’s opener, “Shaky Ground,” works an Americana vibe that features rolling B3 organ riffs and fluid guitars from Greene and Tim Bluhm that are reminiscent of The Wallflowers and George Harrison without being indebted to either. There’s a lot of laconic mid-tempo material on Night, but Greene spices things up with the restrained Farfisa rave-up “Spooky Tina” and backs down with the Dire Straits-tributes-Sticky Fingers hymnal “1961.”

Greene’s hardcore fan base might be slightly put off by the Pop aspects of Till the Night Comes, but the album’s sound is not so far off the beam to start a revolt. Greene’s sitting on a catalog full of “bests,” so it seems inevitable that he’d eventually release a “pretty good,” and Till the Night Comes is pretty good.