"Love and Loss and Redemption, 15 Years Later: Alejandro Escovedo's 'A Man Under the Influence'" by Rob Miller


April 18th, 2016 by bsradmin


By the end of the year 2000, Alejandro and Bloodshot had been working together for a couple of years. We’d released the stirring, sometimes somber, sometimes raucous live document More Miles Than Money in 1998.  In 1999 came the wonderful odds and sods collection Bourbonitis Blues, with its different bands, different studios, different vibes, but a pretty accurate reflection of the depth and versatility of one of our favorite artists. It was an album of pure familial joy with Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford, and Melissa Swingle (Trailer Bride) all lending their talents to a crack band. Super cool covers of Velvet Underground, Gun Club and the Stooges mingled with Alejandro’s deeply personal and enthralling songs. It was off the cuff. Loose and tight.

And, man, all those shows at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn... we never knew what to expect. The orchestra? A duo? An acoustic foursome? A full-on Texas greasy Glam explosion? Who knew? Who cared? The way they’d construct, deconstruct, reconstruct, refigure, and reinvent the music surrounding such a gifted songwriter’s material was a continual source of wonder and excitement. I’m not here to blow smoke up anyone’s ass, and I’m not looking backward through rose-colored (or tequila-tinted) glasses when I say they were all good shows. They all spoke to the joy of discovery and community that has motivated me my entire life in the music biz trenches.

But it was time for an ALBUM, a statement. A culmination of the miles, the shows, the life, the experiences.

In the fall of that year, Alejandro and a cast of characters convened in the Chapel Hill, NC studio of Chris Stamey, best known for his work with Mitch Easter, the dB’s, and Alex Chilton.  Along with Alejandro’s touring band (Hector Munoz, Eric Heywood, Cornbread, Brian Standifer, Joe Eddy Hines)a telepathic group of collaborators if there ever was one—a long list of local luminaries including Ryan Adams, Chip Robinson (The Backsliders), Caitlin Cary and Mike Daly (Whiskeytown), Mac MacCaughan and John Wurster from Superchunk, Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine), and Squirrel Nut Zippers' Chris Phillips, began crafting what would become A Man Under the Influence.

When recording was completed, they sent me the music so I could offer thoughts on the sequencing. I distinctly remember listening to it on a plane to Portland on my new Discman (Sidenote: the Discman was an ancient portable device that played CDs. Side-side note: the Discman had recently replaced my Walkman. The Walkman was a Jurassic era device that…oh nevermind).  As I soared over the Plains and the Rockies, I was, well, transported. I wanted to plug it in to the plane’s PA so everyone could hear it, so everyone could be as excited as I was. It almost made me forgot I was in a plane (me no like to fly).

A Man Under the Influence is Alejandro's spacious exploration of the emotional terrain of love and loss and redemption. It is at once both ghostly and literary. In these times of manufactured drama and cheap emotions, it's easy enough to talk of such things, but Alejandro crawled inside these themes and explored them both intimately and personally. The record is a masterful expression of all that makes us look within as well as to the horizon. With unflinching conviction, Alejandro squares his shoulders and through his music faces up to all that life has to offer, for better or worse

Paying special attention to arrangements and textures, in order to, as he put it "make the melodies as strong as the lyrics," Alejandro rendered Man Under the Influence as a cinematic whole.  

[Promotional poster for A Man Under the Influence]

The opening tracks, "Wave" and "Rosalie" speak to the separation, patience, and romance of an immigrant family; the latter telling the true story of separated passionate lovers who wrote letters to each other for seven years before reuniting and marrying (not that any such issues of immigration and separation are relevant in today’s world…). Taken together, they are epic. Not in the “whoa, dude, you nailed that ollie!" epic, but as in sweeping, grand, breathtaking. In those few minutes, there are the makings of a novel.

And while starting a record with a 5 ½ minute song may not be how they do it in the “real” music industry, we didn’t see any way we COULDN’T do it that way.

[Gig poster for the City Under the Influence Chicago tour in support of the album.
Alejandro played four of the best venues in Chicago (actually, the WORLD!) all in
one week, with a different band for each show, and special guests galore.]

[Sign from the bar at the A Man Under the Influence release show at the Empty
Bottle in Chicago. Alejandro himself tended bar and served margaritas to fans!]

Speaking of weddings, we've gotten so many letters from fans over the years telling us they used "Wedding Day" as "their" song.  Sure, fans could be getting married to the Waco Brothers“Take Me to the Fires” and just not telling us, but we’d like to think not. The rocking "Velvet Guitar" is as expansive and brimming with regret and disappointment as any John Ford epic. And then there’s the song about the foxy, arhythmic castanet player "Castanets" that was his show-stopper for years and is pretty much 3 minutes and 30 seconds of perfect rock and roll. Check out this version from the pre-release SXSW showcase with Ryan Adams yelling along. It was at the long gone Waterloo Brewing Co (now another anonymous glass box tower in the new and “improved” Austin. Oddly, Dennis Quaid was in the wings during the showRyan introduced us to each other. It was all very confusing. Better than Randy showing up, I suppose.)

The end result was the ALBUM, the statement, that we all knew Alejandro had in him.

It’s also the perfect blend of orchestral grandeur and glam rock swagger. It stands as fresh and wonderful now as it did then, maybe more so. The true sign of a classic, what makes it a classic, is its timelessness, and Man Under The Influence is a classic.

Happy Birthday!!

Rob Miller

Bloodshot Records