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Alejandro Escovedo - The Boxing Mirror.jpg

He’s healthy again, and that also means Alejandro Escovedo is back to making music. Staffers Chris M. Junior and George Henn pull no punches in their comments about Escovedo’s latest effort, The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch).

George Henn: The first thing that becomes apparent in listening to The Boxing Mirror is that Escovedo sounds much the same as he did before his recent hiatus from performing and recording (brought on from complications from hepatitis C). On his first record since 2002, Escovedo is in fine voice and, just as important, he offers up the usual array of styles and approaches that fans have come to expect: affecting ballads, roots-rock, earnestness and ragged rockers. These changes from one song to the next are a reminder of why Escovedo has carved out such a critically acclaimed career, as there are few contemporary singer-songwriters who can draw from so many areas so effectively.

Chris M. Junior: Like Rosanne Cash‘s Black Cadillac, Escovedo’s The Boxing Mirror addresses recent life issues, but not in a “Oh, woe is me,” diary-set-to-music kind of way. The first song on Escovedo’s new album is “Arizona,” which is where he became ill. Listeners who have never been to Arizona or have never been diagnosed with hepatitis still can relate to the imagery in the song and Escovedo’s weary delivery.

Henn: True. For instance, “I Died a Little Today,” a song with such an obviously dark meaning, never paints a bleak picture. There is too much hope in his voice, and in his words. “And leave nothing behind, as we head towards the door,” he sings, turning his story of survival into a celebratory one rather than brooding. In the context of Escovedo’s recent health scare, “Arizona” does convey the weariness he must have felt, but the downside is that it is the album’s most lackluster and long-winded track. The lyrics are quite frank, with lines such as “Have a another drink on me” and “I’ve been straight, so straight, since Arizona” — not-so-veiled references to the fact that Escovedo has had to give up drinking and other rock ‘n’ roll vices to survive. Such a morose opening track would doom most records, but here it serves as an effective musical and thematic buildup to the tunes that follow.

Junior: The album shifts gears with “Looking for Love.” And Escovedo sure gets the most out of “The Ladder” — a handful of verses, a simple refrain (“This ladder climbs from me to you”) and a heartfelt vocal, all wrapped up in just under three minutes.

Henn: I think you’ve touched on what makes Escovedo’s music so appealing: For all his different leanings and influences, there is a striking simplicity at the heart of his music. There is certainly a feeling of ease and intimacy on most of The Boxing Mirror‘s songs, as nothing feels forced, with the notable exception being the first of two versions of “Take Your Place.” Producer John Cale, one of Escovedo’s idols from The Velvet Underground, wraps the track in a slick sheen of sound that marks quite a departure for Escovedo and takes away from his gritty vocals. It’s almost as if the second, Rolling Stones-ish version of the track is also included as a sort of apology for such an experiment.

Junior: Speaking of the Stones, there’s a definite “When the Whip Comes Down” feel to “Break This Time,” with it going back and forth between the same two chords most of the time. At first, it’s startling to hear something so fast and rowdy immediately after “The Ladder,” but more tough material follows “Break This Time,” so it essentially serves as the start of the album’s second side.

Henn: Jon Dee Graham, Escovedo’s former bandmate in the True Believers some two decades ago, lends some rough-hewn guitar work to help rev up those songs. You get the feeling Escovedo, who forever cites guitar-rock legends such as Mott the Hoople as key influences, can crank out rockers in his sleep. With this record, he again does not shy away from those tendencies and continues to try to balance them with different moods and sounds. It makes The Boxing Mirror as good a starting point as any for the uninitiated.