A one-man travelogue of places, eras and styles, Texas native Alejandro Escovedo first surfaced in the late ’70s, playing chilly punk in San Francisco’s Nuns, which he had instigated as a college film project. He moved to New York and worked with no wave art-rocker Judy Nylon, co-founded the cowpunk quartet Rank and File (appearing on its 1982 debut album following a relocation to Austin) with the Kinman brothers and then undertook his first leadership/major songwriting role in True Believers. The singer/guitarist launched the eclectic rock quintet with his brother Javier (ex-Zeros) in 1983 and cut a pair of albums, the second of which got caught in a record company shuffle and remained unreleased until 1994, when it was included on Hard Road, a retitled reissue of the Jim Dickinson-produced debut. Both contain strong and sensitive Southwestern rock heated to various energy levels (the second is far stronger and more commercial, a gritty rock album with only the faintest Texas T), but the band never found its focus, and a shortage of stylistic conviction consigned it to generic defeat in 1987.
In Austin, Escovedo formed a floating rock “orchestra” with strings (“I Wanna Be Your Dog” a specialty) and a short-lived rock band (Buick McKane, named after a T. Rex song). He built a local fan base without benefit of any new record releases for more than five years. Then, emotionally shattered by the end of a long marriage and his ex-wife’s subsequent suicide in 1991, he began his career in earnest with a wake: the redemptive, mournful Gravity. In the clarified artistic vision of a mature musician with a broken heart, a spiritual sense of his place in the world and a rich, resonant voice, Escovedo devised an electric folk idiom — part Townes Van Zandt, part Band, part Rolling Stones — powerfully suited to the poetic hair shirt he donned. From the somber album’s very first verse (“Did you get your invitation?/There’s gonna be a public hanging/And the bodies will swing side by side/And it’s just I and I”), Gravity pulls Escovedo down, graveward, even while the stately eloquence of its sound provides him with a graceful escape route. Inconsolable grief stains his voice in the bitter “Five Hearts Breaking,” memories overtake him in “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and a bleak barrenness descends over “The Last to Know.” But “Gravity/Falling Down Again,” which ends the album, has the last laugh-literally — with a “La la la/Ha ha ha” chorus as grimly devastating as any scream of pure agony.
The more artfully composed Thirteen Years recasts Escovedo’s enduring sense of loss, using strings (partly arranged and played by Poi Dog Pondering violinist Susan Voelz, among others) and the recurring “Thirteen Years Theme” to connect the songs. Built around the title track’s haunted autobiography, a narrative ballad that benefits from the elegant drawing-room setting, the album — a testament to patience and virtue — is a marvel of presentation more than content. “Ballad of the Sun and Moon” is a buoyant opener, and “She Towers Above” and “Baby’s Got New Plans” wind things down with grave elegance, but the conversational “Try, Try, Try” is awkward and “Losing Your Touch,” with guest guitarist Charlie Sexton, sounds an awful lot like a Replacements outtake.
Simply getting Willie Nelson and Jennifer Warnes in to sing duets with him moves Escovedo onto a new plateau, but With These Hands is no unseemly commercial bid, just further evidence of his broad and inclusive talent. Although the diverse collection contains some of the strongest rock he’s put on tape since True Believers (the opening “Put You Down,” the bluesy harmonica-wailing “Little Bottles” and the rollicking “Guilty” are surging standouts), Escovedo also essays classical-folk balladry (the Nelson-equipped “Nickel and a Spoon”), a gorgeous small-combo acoustic piano elegy (“Tired Skin”) and a zesty Latin-percussion throwdown (with niece Sheila E. and a bunch of other Escovedos guesting) on the title track. The album ends with “Tugboat,” an atmospheric tribute to Velvet Underground rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison.