Alejandro Escovedo is renowned for his eclectic catalogue; slipping easily between genres and unafraid to tack between diverse musical reference points he is as comfortable with the raucous six strings of his guitar as he is a lush string ensemble. Diversity comes between and within his albums. His backdrop however remains roots rock and alt-country, and it is that which provides the building blocks for the 17 songs on ‘The Crossing’. The twist with this release is that it is, whisper it, a concept album. No, it’s OK, come out from behind the sofa, the promo sticker on the album cover is still likely to read ‘for fans of Steve Earle’ rather than ‘Yes’ and the music grooves, shuffles and raps out some straight- eight chugging rhythms in a most pleasing way. It also delivers a heartfelt political message.
A concept album needs a story and ‘The Crossing’ follows the journey to America of two young men looking for the country they have seen portrayed in the films they have devoured and hungry for the spirit they have absorbed from the records of their punk rock heroes. Sadly, and inevitably, they encounter a jarring and disconcerting reality gap; the poor, tired and huddled masses who yearn to breathe free would be better, it seems, staying away. Escovedo recorded the album in Italy, conceiving the songs in collaboration with Antonio Gramentiere and backed by his band Don Antonio. It is no surprise then that our two young immigrants men come from Mexico (Diego) and Italy (Salvo).
The album also features some impressive cameos in a neat double reference. The MC5 is both name-checked on the record and Wayne Kramer lends his guitar playing gravitas on ‘Sonica USA’ which sees Diego and Salvo struggling to make sense of their new surroundings and bolstering their resolve by pulling power from the rebellious spirit of rock and roll. They defiantly strut that “I saw the Zeroes and they looked like me, this is the America I wanted to be”. Elsewhere the Stooges get the same treatment and James Williamson ghosts in on ‘Teenage Luggage’. Peter Perret lends his nasal intonations to ‘Waiting for Me’ (fellow Only One John Perry is there too), and Joe Ely also gets a look in.
Contemporary the album certainly is; on ‘Fury and Fire’ Escovedo laments that “They call us rapists and gonna build a bigger wall”. The title surely is a spin on Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury’ and its incredulous account of the Trump administration and its base approach to the struggles of fellow human beings.
The messages are sharp and the music, for the most part satisfying. But, yes fans aside, we are back to that niggling doubt about, well the whole concept of the concept. Many of the songs do cut to the chase and park themselves nicely in the rich cannon of protest songs. But do they need to be tied together as they are? As with most concept albums the story meanders and as a listener it is puzzling exactly what is happening when. But if we abandon the idea that the theme is necessary then we have to be honest and say that the album doesn’t need to be seventeen songs – there is fat here that can be trimmed without a significant loss to the experience – if the instrumental was not here would anybody be saying ‘you know what Alejandro, what we really need here is ….’ I expect not. Bottom line is this is an album that amplifies the voices of our story’s protagonists and given Escovedo’s own heritage it is the authentic voicing of ‘the other’; in these times it’s a story that needs telling. Artistically –top marks, as entertainment the adage ‘less is more’ could have been taped to the mixing desk; the message would get out there better in 12 tight tunes.
Bang on sign of the times commentary delivered through 17 song concept suite that could take on board the ‘less is more’ idea