Former cowpunk troubadour, brother of Santana’s Pete and cirrhosis of the liver survivor Alejandro Escovedo returns with The Boxing Mirror, his first studio album in five years and his seventh solo effort.
The musical journey it offers is as diverse as Escovedo’s background, encompassing AOR soft rock infused with glam swirls, cowpoke accordions and strings that veer from swelling to squealing feedback, thanks mainly to John Cale on production duties.
Overall, though, there’s a creeping disappointment about the whole package. While his previous effort, 2000’s Bourbonitis Blues, was accused of sounding like a thrown-together collection of outtakes, The Boxing Mirror can almost be damned with the opposite: it’s too MOR and considered for a man who comes with rock credentials as wide as 70s punks Nun and glam successors Buick MacKane as well as previous collaborations with the Mekons‘ John Langford and the aforementioned Cale, who performed with him at 2005’s South by South West.
In between, you couldn’t have scripted a country and western soundtrack better: in April 2003, Escovedo collapsed following a show in Phoenix, Arizona and was diagnosed with advanced cirrhosis of the liver resulting from Hepatitis C. Musicians from Calexico to Lucinda Williams to Howe Gelb rallied round, resulting in a series of benefit concerts and a 32-track tribute album, Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, released in 2004.
With such glowing approval from alt.country legends and rising lights alike, not to mention what must have been a life-changing brush with eternity, you might expect something worthy of a Beyond Nashville headline slot, but instead this sounds less like the reward for such staunch industry support and more like a commercial-as-possible attempt to make sure he never needs their help with his medical bills again.
Despite the fact that Escovedo’s still positioning himself to the alt.country market, there’s little alt. about The Boxing Mirror at all and not really very much country, either. Most of the time, it’s run-of-the mill soft rock, from the dreary ballads such as The Ladder, Evita’s Lullaby and I Died A Little Today, to the air over-long guitar solos of Notes on Air and Break This Time. There’s none of the tight, intimate appeal he displayed on 1998’s More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96, and which helped him win such a loyal following. This is more like the kind of music that Grunge fought so hard to save us from.
The album does have some redeeming features. The paranoid background noises of opener Arizona promise better than the following tracks delivers, while the slow drumbeat and funeral parlour piano of title track The Boxing Mirror rise above the rest, but they’re the exceptions rather than the rule. The moments that do save it from complete mediocrity are too obviously down to Cale’s influence and the album’s best track, Sacramento & Polk, isn’t even a new one. Its feedback-laden strings and spoken vocals owe more to European Son than a country edge, and it sounds out of place amid the radio-friendly AOR that surrounds it. Thirteenth track Take Your Place (alt mix), unlisted on the sleeve notes and only one track away from its original version, serves no obvious purpose at all.
Escovedo’s road back to health probably hasn’t been an easy one, and it seems cruel to kick a man when he’s trying to get back up, but unfortunately The Boxing Mirror really isn’t much to write home about and while we no doubt all wish him well, there’s little reason to recommend it. Catch him on his late May/early June UK dates if you must, but if you go into the gigs expecting anything special, prepare to be disappointed.