Posts Tagged ‘Alejandro Escovedo’

Like their peers in the Los Angeles Paisley Underground movement of the '80s, the Long Ryders were a band who swore allegiance to the sounds of the '60s. Hear them at The Constellation Room this Friday!

A 1984 New York Times article on the emerging aesthetic acknowledged genre cowpunk as one of several catch-all terms critics were using to categorize the country-influenced music of otherwise unrelated punk and New Wave bands. The article briefly summarized the music’s history, at least in the United States, saying that in the early 1980’s, several punk and New Wave bands had begun collecting classic country records, and soon thereafter began performing high-tempo cover versions of their favorite songs, and that new bands had also formed around the idea.

By 1984, there were dozens of bands in both the U.S. and England “personalizing country music, several U.S. bands: X, the Blasters, Meat Puppets, Rank and File (playing “an updated version of 1960’s country-rock”), Jason and the Scorchers (with “authentically deep country roots”), and Violent Femmes (at that time incorporating “mountain banjo, wheezing saxophones, scraping fiddle, twanging jew’s harp, and ragged vocal choruses”)

Cowpunk was a catch-all term that critics had come up with to categorize a number of non-mainstream bands and artists who were heavily influenced by country music, but also parlayed their love of blues, roots, and rockabilly, while still keeping their punk, new wave, and/or psychedelic sensibilities close at hand. This emergence was, more or less, a reaction to the over commercialization of synth pop and punk evolving into hardcore. There was also a disdain for the current state of contemporary country music that had become bland, boring, and a hollow shell of its former self. The collective artists in the cowpunk movement were gifted songwriters that were appealing to rural intellectuals as well as finding a home on college radio. There was quite a number of bands that joined the ranks, but due to geographics (among other things), only a select few truly arose out of obscurity where major labels awaited, hoping for the next big cash-in.

The Long Ryders: Rising Phoenix-like out of the the Los Angeles-based band the Unclaimed, the Long Ryders were a major force in the Paisley Underground movement. Mixing their record collections of Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, The Ryders birthed a unique, jangle pop sound but with an edge that would forever influence the alt-country scene that’s felt even today. Releasing a debut EP titled “10-5-60” in 1983 (and suffering a personnel change), the most well-known line up of the band stabilized afterwords with Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Tom Stevens, and Greg Sowders. In 1984 they released “Native Sons”, followed by “State Of Our Union” in 1985, and “Two Fisted Tales” in 1987.

Although the band was getting airplay on college radio, they weren’t getting the necessary support from MTV, which was a virtual kiss of death. The viewings of their videos were scarce at best, elbowed out of the way for more Top 40 friendly faces that weren’t sporting mutton chops and suede vests.

This brilliant chart by my pal Pete Frame tells you who the Long Ryders were better than any biog you will ever read.

The group disbanded in 1987, and their reunions have been sparse. Their released output since their demise has been obligatory “Best Of” comps and live recordings. All of the members have stayed active in the music industry in some capacity, including Griffin who has fronted the British-American bluegrass band the Coal Porters since 1991.

Rank and File, I had zero knowledge of this band with a fairly (in my opinion) punk name. The review of “Long Gone Dead” was vague, to say the least, but nevertheless, I made a mental note to look more into this group. In the pre-internet days, this wasn’t going to be done with ease. I perused the cassette section and I found my purchase of the week. I knew I was gambling here, but it had two things in its favour: One, it had been reviewed in Thrasher Magazine, and the other factor, it was on Slash Records, the groundbreaking label out of Los Angeles, CA that was one of the epitomes of musical cool, up there with SST and IRS Records. But something happened on the way to punk rock Valhalla, and it would change the way I would view (or listen) to American music forever.

For some three-chord deliverance, the opening track “Long Gone Dead” was over, I had to focus. Next came “I’m An Old Old Man”, which honestly, didn’t make me feel any better. But by the third song “Sound Of the Rain”, something clicked, and I ventured into an aurally voyeuristic experience that had me rewinding back to the beginning, over and over again. Then I gathered up the courage to listen to the entire recording, front to back, amazed that I didn’t wear it out. Finally, I was converted. But first, I had to find out what this was, because it wasn’t country music in the “Swingin’” sense or in any sense of the genre at all. This was something special, and it was called “Cowpunk”.

Rank and File: Here’s where it all began for me, Rank and File was the musical brain trust of brothers Chip and Tony Kinman who formed the band out of the ashes of their former California-based project The Dils. After migrating to Austin, TX, they hooked up with ex-Nuns member Alejandro Escovedo and released their first album “Sundown” on Slash Records in 1982. Their second release “Long Gone Dead” saw them institute more use of steel guitar and fiddle, and parlaying their love for traditional country music, they covered Lefty Frizzelle’s “I’m An Old Old Man”. For their self-titled swan song, the band went with a more pop-oriented, yet still twangy, sound to try and capture more commercial interest. Unfortunately, it never happened, and the band was dissolved. Afterwords, the Kinmans formed the synth pop experiment Blackbird, then ventured into the alt-country waters with Cowboy Nation.

Jason & the Scorchers: If there was ever to be a symbol of the movement as a whole, then this band should be the one holding the flag. Formed in Nashville, TN in 1981 by Jason Ringenberg, this Molotav Cocktail powerhouse was an amalgamation of ’70s punk bands like the Clash and the Damned fused with the traditional country music stylings of Hank Williams. It didn’t take long for the band to gel and kick out a debut EP fittingly titled “Reckless Country Soul” in 1982 where they paid homage to Hank and even attacked Jerry Falwell within the four tracks. A second EP titled “Fervor” was released the following year, with the video for their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” getting rotated regularly on MTV and giving them much needed national exposure.

However, commercial success kept eluding Jason and the Scorchers, as rock stations deemed them “too country” and country music stations found them to be “too rock ‘n’ roll”. Two full length albums, “Lost and Found” and “Still Standing” were released to little fanfare, and their label, EMI, dropped them. Going on a three year hiatus, the band returned with “Thunder and Fire” a more heavier and metal-influenced album in 1990 that got mixed and negative reviews. Feeling defeated, the band temporarily fell apart, with Ringenberg going the solo route, even taking on an alter-ego called “Farmer Jason”, Since 1995, Ringenberg has released ten albums to date with various line-ups of The Scorchers, and has seven solo releases under his belt, while original member Warner Hodges has also released solo work and is currently playing in Drivin N Cryin.

The Beat Farmers: Formed in 1983 by the charismatic Country Dick Montana, this San Diego-based group would also come to define the true meaning of cowpunk, with its rockin’ stew of swamp rock, Americana, and rockabilly. Included in the original line-up was Jerry Raney, Rolle Love, and Buddy Blue. In 1984 they won a Battle Of the Bands competition in their hometown, gaining them a cult following throughout Southern California. That same year, they signed a one-off record deal with Rhino Records for what would become their most well-known album, “Tales Of the New West”, released in 1985. One of the singles off this release was “Happy Boy” which received much support and airplay, giving them national exposure, but also pigeonholing them as a novelty act. After a stint in England to record the “Glad ‘N’ Greasy” EP (produced by Graham Parker) for Demon Records, they signed a seven album deal with Curb Records which wasn’t the harmonious relationship they expected. Fed up with working under Curb’s thumb, Buddy Blue quit the band, and was replaced by Joey Harris. The band soldiered on with the label, releasing the single “Make It Last”, and dabbling in side projects and movie soundtrack contributions. Becoming increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with Curb, they found a way out of their contract in 1993, and began releasing albums for the Austin, TX-based label Sector 2. Tragically, Country Dick died of a heart attack during a performance in British Columbia on November 8, 1995. Three days later, the remaining members dissolved the band, eventually going forth and getting involved in other musical projects such as Raney-Blue, the Farmers, the Flying Putos, and Joey Harris and the Mentals, among others. Sadly, Buddy Blue died of a heart attack on April 2, 2006.

Green On Red: Formed in the Tuscon, AZ punk scene in 1979 as the Serfers, Green On Red made their move to Los Angeles and quickly became associated with the Paisley Underground. This heavily psychedelic-influenced four piece included Dan Stuart, Jack Waterson, Van Christian, and eventually Alex MacNicol. In 1982, they self-released an EP known at the time as “Two Bibles”, followed by them getting signed to Slash Records in 1983 to release their first full-length album “Gravity Talks”. Meshing twangy guitars with Ray Manzarek-style keyboard playing, the band sounded like a country version of the Doors, with some Velvet Underground influences, yet still able to churn out tunes that wouldn’t be out of place on a honky tonk jukebox. In 1985, San Francisco-based guitar player Chuck Prophet joined the band for the “Gas Food Lodging” album on Enigma Records, after which MacNicol would be replaced by Keith Mitchell on drums.

After “The Killer Inside Me” was released in 1987, the band called it quits. However, Dan Stuart began collaborating with Prophet in 1989, and the duo released “Here Come the Snakes” under the Green On Red name. Three more albums were released with their swan song “Too Much Fun” getting released in 1992. Since that time, the band has participated in numerous reunions under different line-ups.

Lone Justice: Fronted by the gifted and talented Maria McKee and backed by the tight unit of Ryan Hedgecock, Marvin Etzioni, and Don Heffington, Lone Justice’s blend of country rock, rockabilly, and punk, made them a popular draw on the Los Angeles bar scene. So much so, that Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame was a frequent guest at their gigs for like-minded jamming. Gaining a reputation as a band that you had to get out and see and exposure in music periodicals brought them to the attention of Linda Ronstadt who helped them get signed to Geffen Records. They released their self-titled debut in 1985, followed by the single and video of “Ways To Be Wicked”, co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. A second single, “Sweet, Sweet Baby” was released, along with a support slot on a tour with U2, but with all of this going for them, the album just wasn’t selling. Even though critics loved it and placed it on their “Best Of” polls, the public wasn’t buying it. In the wake of this disaster, McKee’s bandmates jumped ship and she was almost forced to call the band “A-Lone Justice”. Hiring an all-new line-up, the new Justice hit the studio with E-Streeter Little Steven Van Zandt for the second album “Shelter”, which fared worse than its predecessor, abandoning the band’s original roots rock sound for a more typical pop/rock feel with synthesizers and drum machines, foreign objects to bands of this caliber. With its dismal sales, “Shelter” became the band’s Waterloo, and McKee broke up the band. Eventually, she would release solo material.

Finally It would be remiss if I didn’t mention Los Lobos. Although they weren’t cowpunk, they were and still are, champions and survivors of the music industry and true representatives of the roots rock movement. Having made one of their first public appearances in Los Angeles opening for Public Image, Ltd., in 1980, they were gathering enough attention that by the time they released their EP “…And A Time To Dance”, the 50,000 copies sold out. Now possessing some capital, they hit the road and toured all over the U.S. Their clout got them back in the studio in 1984 for their breakthrough album “How Will the Wolf Survive?”, released on Slash Records. With the release of the single and video of “Will the Wolf Survive?”, the band was making a statement on their struggles trying to gain success in the States while maintaining their Mexican heritage. After releasing their next album “By the Light Of the Moon” in 1987, they contributed several songs to the film and soundtrack of “La Bamba”, which the title track hit the number one spot on the singles chart. Los Lobos has since continued to tour with a diverse mix of artists, released numerous albums and singles, appeared in films, and all along the way, they’ve stayed true to their roots. Will the wolf survive? They sure as hell did…

There were scores of other bands that either flirted with or were wholeheartedly part of the cowpunk family tree. Now they would be more commonly associated with the “roots rock” banner than cowpunk, which today sounds antiquated to most rock historians. The Blasters, the Gun Club, the Cramps, the Del Fuegos, X, the Lazy Cowgirls, Blood On the Saddle, Mojo Nixon and others are held in the highest regard to music buffs that enjoy true American rock ‘n’ roll.

Interestingly enough, two performers who came along in the midst of the cowpunk movement have been churning out successful albums throughout the years since they were categorized in this genre. Dwight Yoakam was viewed as a “punk in cowboy boots”, brandishing a traditional Bakersfield sound on his “Guitars, Cadillacs,” album in 1986, earning him a shunning from country radio stations who found him “too traditional”. And Steve Earle, who felt more comfortable around punks as opposed to rednecks was also viewed with disdain with his 1986 album “Guitar Town”, which was considered “too rock”.

Also check out The Blasters, X/The Knitters, Danny and Rusty, Dwight Yoakam, Violent Femmes and Rosie Flores,  

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The son of Mexican immigrants, Alejandro Escovedo mines his own backstory for “Sonica USA.” Featuring the MC5’s Wayne Kramer on lead guitar, the punky track finds him looking back on his childhood days as a Chicano punk-rocker in the American Southwest. Escovedo covers similar ground on his upcoming album, The Crossing, a concept record revolving around a pair of migrant musicians

Alejandro Escovedo has one of the most fascinating career paths in music and his upcoming album is another example of his singular vision. The Crossingdue out this September, is a suite of songs that chronicle the stories of two young immigrant rock and rollers, Salvo from Italy and Diego from Mexico, as they meet working in a Texas restaurant while each pursuing their vision of the American Dream.

The albums’s version of that dream is soundtracked by punk pioneers The Stooges and MC5 and populated by people who read both Mexican philosopher-poet Octavio Paz and the beat poets of the 1950’s. In fact, that’s very much the story of Alejandro Escovedo and this song cycle is a return to his punk roots as much as it is an exploration of the themes of cultural identity.

“Sonica USA” is the first single off the upcoming album and the track is a loud and boisterous reflection — featuring Wayne Kramer of MC5 on guitar — on Escovedo’s youth growing up in Austin when he and his brother Javier played in a punk-before-it-was-punk band called The Zeros.

Alejandro Escovedo has one of the most fascinating career paths in music and his upcoming album is another example of his singular vision. The Crossingdue out this September, is a suite of songs that chronicle the stories of two young immigrant rock and rollers, Salvo from Italy and Diego from Mexico, as they meet working in a Texas restaurant while each pursuing their vision of the American Dream.

The albums’s version of that dream is soundtracked by punk pioneers The Stooges and MC5 and populated by people who read both Mexican philosopher-poet Octavio Paz and the beat poets of the 1950’s. In fact, that’s very much the story of Alejandro Escovedo and this song cycle is a return to his punk roots as much as it is an exploration of the themes of cultural identity.

“Sonica USA” is the first single off the upcoming album and the track is a loud and boisterous reflection — featuring Wayne Kramer of MC5 on guitar on Escovedo’s youth growing up in Austin when he and his brother Javier played in a punk-before-it-was-punk band called The Zeros.

In the song, and in a quote released with the track, Escovedo insightfully positions Mexican American youth as a critical part of punk history.

“When we were playing as the True Believers early on [in the 1980’s] we’d play San Marcos, San Antonio and get all these Chicano kids in denim vests and Iron Maiden patches,” Escovedo says. “I remember thinking they were into us, not necessarily for the music, but for the fact we were there on stage. They loved that we were doing what we were doing.”

True to Escovedo’s nature, the upcoming album comes with a curious twist: It was recorded with Don Antonio, a group of young Italian rockers he recently toured Europe with as a backing band. He developed such a strong bond with the band leader, Antonio Gramentiere, that they ended up writing the songs for the album after riding around Texas soaking in the open landscape and eating both pasta and tacos.

The result is The Crossinga power collection of songs that may in fact be the most succinct statement of Alejandro Escovedo’s musical and personal story ever. “Sonica USA” only whets your appetite for what lies in store on the rest of the album.
The Crossing is due out on Sept. 14 via Yep Roc Records.

Alejandro Escovedo

Despite the success of teaming up with legendary producer Tony Visconti and co-writer Chuck Prophet for his previous three studio releases, Americana icon (the Nuns, Rank & File, True Believers, solo) Alejandro Escovedo clearly felt it was time for a change. Out go Visconti and Prophet, in come Scott McCaughey (Minus 5) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) to handle both producing and co-writing.

Those two likely helped Escovedo connect with this album’s other backing musicians. They include guitarist Kurt Bloch (The Fastbacks), drummer John Moen (the Decemberists), baritone saxist Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and singers Kelly Hogan and Corin Tucker: an Americana supergroup of sorts. This results in a set that doesn’t forgo Escovedo’s influences (“Shave the Cat” borrows T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong” lick), but incorporates them subtly into reflective, introspective songs often musing on ageing and its effect on the rock and roll lifestyle. Titles such as “Sunday Morning Feeling,” “Redemption Blues,” “I Don’t Want to Play Guitar Anymore” and the (almost) closing “Farewell to the Good Times,” the latter with lyrics “there’s nothing left to believe in,” show where Escovedo’s mind is.

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There are plenty of ballads to reflect on , some with ghostly, moving backing vocals as on “Beauty and the Buzz” that add a cool, somewhat ghostly approach. But Escovedo rocks hard in the tough garage attack of “Luna De Miel,” the thumping, talk/sung Velvet Underground influenced aggression in “Beauty of Your Smile” and especially the call and response wah-wah guitar enhanced boogie of the booming opening “Horizontal.”

Even the acoustic based “Suit of Lights” (“look at me/a sailor with no compass lost at sea”) and the chiming, Byrds’ inflected, soulful “Sunday Morning Feeling” (“I’ve seen better days/I’ve got nothing left to say/but that’s alright”) display a dark, edgy intensity that permeates the entire program. Nowhere is that more evident than on the ominous, near nightmare-ish folk-noir with restrained guitar feedback “Redemption Blues,” (“someday I’ll find a little peace”) one of the most harrowing songs in his catalog and surely a highlight of this set. Escovedo always delivers, occasionally even spits out, his lyrics with passion, but he seems particularly inspired throughout the disc’s 12 selections (and a startling, mesmerizing bonus cut with erratic drums and spectral backing singing “Thought I’d Let You Know” not listed on the cover).

There are no weak tracks, proving that this collaboration with Buck & McCaughey provided the energy and creativity to help Escovedo’s 12th studio release be one of his finest, which is no small feat in his already exceptionally productive, creative and influential career.