it's some comfort for aging post-adolescents like me to put down the daily cares once in a while, slap some cold water on the face and put in mind the case of Alejandro Escovedo, chief Buick and epic late-bloomer.
The man never did anything worth mentioning until he was past 30, and even then it was only the Nuns -- if not the most highly overwagged Cali punk band of the late '70s (that'd be the unsinkable Screamers), then probably the butt-awfullest still to trail a legend behind it. Four years down the road came a stint as Third Everly Brother in Rank 'N' File, Chip and Tony Kinman's crypto-Marxian, take-it-to-the-people cowpunk band. There was one great album, and Nashville beckoned, but Alejandro was gone and stayed missing for another four years. By the time he surfaced as First Escovedo Brother (with Javier, ex-Zeros) in the barnstorming True Believers, time must've been ticking loudly in his ear for more than a decade. But the Believers free-fell with the roots-rock trendlet that carried them -- along with the Georgia Satellites, and Lone Justice, and God-all knows who else -- and their evaporated record deal dropped Alejandro right back nowhere again, coming out the other side of 40.
It's comforting, all of this. It shows that pushing 30 isn't so bad, really, 'cause if this is the measure by which we're judging things, many of us haven't even joined the Nuns yet, for all the times we've fallen on our asses and thought it was the end. Alejandro (comfort to us all) JUST DOESN'T QUIT. Here, 10 years on from the True Believers debacle -- at 52 and looking more stately than haggard -- he's nestled into a Ryko deal with a brace of fine solo albums behind him. He's an acclaimed songwriter, and something like royalty at home in Austin. He's Sheila E.'s uncle, for chrissake -- and here he is ROCKING OUT in this Buick MacKane side-thing like a dewy-lipped Tommy Stinson.
"The Pawn Shop Years" is a rootsy sludgefest held together by Escovedo's seasoned voice and by a skeleton of fine craftsmanship underlying its surface. Some of its songs have appeared in more polished form on Escovedo's solo albums, where they've drawn considerable praise and garlands. Here, though, they get the sketchbook treatment: They're stripped down to the essentials with all their seams and wires left showing.
It makes for an exciting ride. The album's feedback histrionics and guitar-chewing manages to drive the songs forward without cementing over their subtleties, and the band's obvious command of rudiment and cadence allows them to shift moods at right angles -- and lets them start and end a song by doing something other than counting four and leaping. It's a virtuoso performance disguised as mondo-trasho slop, and one gets the feeling that Escovedo knows it as well as the listener does, all the way through.
But it's also true that knowing the whole Escovedo saga makes the album sound better than it might actually be. If it had been done by a group of drunken Texas 20-somethings, it would've been nothing more than a minor triumph of rootsmanship swathed in oversaturated guitars. It would've been the Subdudes with a gnarly attitude and their amps blowing tubes all over the studio. And that's fine, but it's not quite as snaggletoothed a concept as Escovedo might think it is. For all general purposes, though, "The Pawn Shop Years" kicks plenty, and has style to spare. Great road music for the discerning DWI.