Alejandro Escovedo | The Boxing Mirror (Back Porch)

The Boxing Mirror is an album that takes its time getting to know itself; it’s perhaps a result of this that it ends up being a terribly uneven listen, its strong songs cluttering the second side while the first is pocked by misfires.

 


Alejandro Escovedo’s The Boxing Mirror, the first new album in more than four years from the singer-songwriter once hailed by No Depression magazine at the close of the ’90s as its “Artist of the Decade,” is somewhat disappointing. It would not have been unreasonable for listeners to expect that the underappreciated Tex-Mex rocker and producer John Cale might err on the side of the turgid, given the latter musician’s penchant for experimentation and the former’s unabashed idolatry of the latter. But this album’s biggest sticking point is its flat production and frequently unexciting midtempo grooves. The sound that is most out of the ordinary here is the glass harmonica that opens the album, but its crystalline swirl is immediately followed by the rest of “Arizona,” a murky number that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of John Hiatt’s least impressive swamp-rock records.

The Boxing Mirror is an album that takes its time getting to know itself; it’s perhaps a result of this that it ends up being a terribly uneven listen, its strong songs cluttering the second side while the first is pocked by misfires. “Dear Head on the Wall,” for example, loses points for having first appeared on the several-years-old Por Vida benefit disc, and it loses a few more for paling in comparison to guitarist Charlie Sexton’s earlier recorded version. Its chunky bass string section here forms an interesting, if unchanging, rhythm that all but drowns out Escovedo’s guitar. “Looking for Love,” a strictly by-the-numbers AOR exercise complete with banal lyrics and embarrassing synthetic backing, sounds like a relic from the ’80s that would’ve stood to benefit from remaining a forgotten artifact.

Fortunately, The Boxing Mirror rallies at the midway point, beginning with the gorgeous ballad “The Ladder.” A honey-toned Tejano waltz coaxed to life by acoustic guitar and accordion, its lyric offers sparkling romantic imagery, making it far and away the album’s finest song. “Break This Time” is a sturdy rocker in the tradition of such Escovedo classics as “Velvet Guitar” and “Paradise,” and could even be said to recall the singer’s work in the ’70s with his band Rank and File. “Died a Little Today” owes much to Escovedo’s recent battles with illness and mounting debt, but it is also speaks of death in a less than literal sense, suggesting perhaps that although we may indeed die a little each day, we also continue to adapt to new circumstances and ultimately find new ways in which to persevere. Another new-old song, “Sacramento & Polk” (which also appeared on Por Vida as well as Escovedo’s 1999 LP Bourbonitis Blues), serves as an unexpected highlight, transformed here into a fiery rocker that shares little in common with any of its previous incarnations. It’s all streetwise snarl, worn and drug-addled, distorted but not defeated. You might say the same about the man who wrote it.

 


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