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Alejandro Escovedo: Echo Dancing (Yep Roc)

by | Apr 17, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Marci Cohen, Head of Instruction and Consultation, Boston University Libraries

Cover of Echo Dancing (Yep Roc)

As he was about to embark on an album of new material, Alejandro Escovedo instead decided to revisit the full swath of his back catalog, recording new versions of songs from throughout his varied career, for his new album Echo Dancing (Yep Roc). To situate Escovedo, there are parallels between him and the Pretenders. Their music is grounded in the spirit of punk rock, but the musicianship and songwriting are too strong to get lumped in with a genre where lack of skill was venerated. However, Escovedo was a late bloomer: his San Francisco punk band the Nuns are now primarily remembered as the prelude to his more substantial later work. The native Texan came into his own as an artist in the ‘90s within Americana, where lyrics are revered and fiddles are welcome. In this path, he has parallels to Lucinda Williams, who came from the blue/folk scene rather than punk, but her career similarly didn’t blossom until her 30s. Both write from a distinctly adult perspective, giving them a niche appeal. His live shows are magical, built around his unique blend of swagger and humility. In the early days of the South by Southwest music festival, he headlined the closing night, befitting his honored place in  Austin, where he’s spent large swaths of his career.

Musicians have long had a variety of motivations for releasing new recordings of older materia. In the past, live tracks commonly became the best-known versions, such as “I Want You to Want Me” from Cheap Trick at Budokkhan (Epic, 1979) and U2’s “Bad” from Wide Awake in America (Island, 1985). Peter Frampton’s fame exploded with Frampton Comes Alive (A&M, 1976), the ubiquity of “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way” overshadowing not only his solo studio recordings but also his earlier work in Humble Pie. The ‘90s spawned the MTV Unplugged era. Nirvana reworked their own hits in front of a televised intimate audience, but the definitive track on that album (DCG, 1994) was their acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”

The shift away from prominent live recordings, especially in the pop realm, reflects tastes attuned to studio creation. Scandalous rumors swirled in 2000 that Britney Spears was lip-syncing at “live” performances, but it is now accepted for many performers due to choreography that would leave even the most aerobic singer breathless or the high-stakes audience expectations of perfection at events such as the Super Bowl halftime show. Today’s arena and stadium shows are grand spectacles, and fans are there for an exact replica of the studio production. The issue of whether the artists are lip-syncing is irrelevant. Anyone questioning such authenticity would be dismissed with “OK, Boomer.”

The impetus to re-record is frequently business-related, which requires a quick music copyright primer. Recorded music is covered by two separate copyrights. One is on the underlying composition and is held by the composer and lyricist and maybe co-owned by the publisher. The other is on the sound recording, called the master, and is typically owned by the record company. Artists can skirt the record company’s copyright by re-recording their songs. The most famous example is Taylor Swift’s redoing the “Taylor’s version” of her albums released on Big Machine following a dispute with the new owner of the label. But the practice has existed for years. For instance, 1960s Cameo-Parkway artists Chubby Checker and ? Mark & the Mysterians faithfully recreated their early hits because the label declined to issue their catalog on CD for many years. (Miller, Chuck. 2002. “Collectormania!: Are Cameo-Parkway CDs in Our Future?” Goldmine 28, no. 24,  (Nov 29, 2002): 22.) 

Sometimes artists split the difference between art and commerce in revisiting old recordings. It’s a common practice for drawing attention to compilations and pulling in completist fans, as the Police did with “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” for Every Breath You Take: The Singles (A&M, 1986). U2’s Songs of Surrender (Universal, 2023) reimagined their back catalog with acoustic-focused arrangements; it mainly existed to co-promote Bono’s 2022 memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).

But it can be motivated by artistic aspirations. Some artists want to overcome dissatisfaction with the quality of the original recording, as Heart did with Magazine, originally released on Mushroom in 1977. Some explore new genres and styles. Joni Mitchell created orchestral arrangements of old songs for 2002’s Travelogue (Nonesuch, 2002). Todd Rundgren’s bossa nova renditions of his back catalog on 1997’s With A Twist (Guardian) capitalized on the cocktail/lounge revival craze of that era. And this isn’t the first time Escovedo released a new version of his existing material. The Crossing (Yep Roc, 2018) was a concept album about two immigrants to the U.S., one from Mexico, one from Italy. Using the same instrumental tracks, he followed it up with La Cruzada in 2021 (Yep Roc) with translated Spanish-language vocals by Alex Ruiz.

Escovedo takes a broad stylistic approach with Echo Dancing, which befits the diverse arc of his career. After the Nuns, he formed the roots rock band True Believers, followed that with the early alt-country band Rank & File and then ran the looser Buick Mackane as a parallel side project to his solo career. Until Escovedo’s vocals chime in “Everybody Loves Me,” the instrumental introduction could be mistaken for the electronic collage work of Nine Inch Nails. The new arrangement of “Too Many Tears” takes on grandeur. “Castanets” was raucous and rough-edged originally; the new interpretation, “Castañuelas” presents it as moody, in the realm of Morphine’s film noir vibe. “Last to Know” ditches the pedal steel and mandolin of the original. The stripped-back “Sacramento & Polk” emphasizes the lyrics, lines such as “The neighbors spend their days washing their socks/And staring out the window in a Thorazine haze.” The biggest shift is one of perspective for “Bury Me.” Written in the early ‘90s, Escovedo imagined himself dying before various ages in his 40s and 50s. The new version, released on his 73rd birthday, reflects the weight of the accumulation of years and near-death experiences. Hepatitis C temporarily halted his career in the ‘00s, and he and his new wife were trapped in a hurricane during their 2014 honeymoon.

Echo Dancing prompts the question: Is the recorded version of a song a waypoint or an endpoint? To put it in cataloging terms of the bibliographic model, Escovedo is more attached to the work than the expression of it. It takes a gifted songwriter and an imaginative interpreter to reposition his songs from the style and production trends in which they were born.

Check out the Echo Dancing Review Playlist HERE!

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