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Alejandro Escovedo - With These Hands
(Rykodisc)

Alejandro Escovedo builds songs a detail at a time. He builds albums song by song. A bricklayer analogy works, and itís perhaps an appropriate one for an album titled for a song about Escovedoís father, who built a life and supported his many children by doing manual labor. Certainly With These Hands is a compelling product of a manís hard work and fine craftsmanship.

This Austin pro, a vet of True Believers, The Nuns, and other bands, roams musical ground thatís well-treadóa southwestern guitar-based rock with plenty of acoustic guitar in the mix, some keyboards, well-placed harmonies, and the occasional other flourish or two. The most striking wrinkle in the formula on Hands is the title track, pushed along by percussion played by no less than five Escovedos, including Alejandroís two brothers, who have played with Santana, and niece Sheila, better known with her surname abbreviated to its first letter. All the percussive clanking combines with some slightly twangy guitar energy to make the song move, giving it an on the road, tryiní to speed away from a hurricane kind of feel.

As on a good Silos album, the dominating sound never grows tiresome, despite its instant familiarity. Thatís a pretty sure sign the songs are strong. An upbeat, R&Bish bar band variant of the sound replete with tambourine makes "Guilty," in which unsettling pasts are examined, much more arresting than the sum of its rather standard issue parts. That overfamiliar sound has a way of smothering weak songs, so itís always a wonder when they sound better on the tenth listening than they did on the first. "Crooked Frame"ís loud blasts of guitar are enough to make the sound work on this ominous look back at too much time spent with someone damaging to your mental healthó"I could smile for the first time without thinking of you," he sings, as if sighing relief.

Four ballads tie it all together. In "Pissed Off 2AM," the singer comes home late at night revved up with stories to tell but canít bring himself to wake his lover, so he turns reflective instead. Jennifer Warnes harmonizes on the piano-dominated arrangement. Put this one on the short list for ballad of the year consideration. Fellow Texan Willie Nelson lends vocals and a guitar solo on "Nickel And A Spoon," with a riff copped from "You Are My Sunshine." "Tired Skin" begins and ends with a simple piano hook that sounds like it might have been borrowed from Stephen Foster, or maybe itís Springsteenís "Incident On 57th Street." The closing elegy, "Tugboat," is dedicated to Sterling Morrison, who Escovedo casually knew around the time the former Velvet was a boat captain in Texas during the 1980s. Ballads to rockers, ainít no weak bricks in this recordís foundation. Youíre in good hands with Alejandro Escovedo.

YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1996