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Album Review

JAVIER ESCOVEDO
City Lights

I knew Javier Escovedo back in the late seventies during the early Zeros days--- just after their now classic punk anthem Wimp had been released by Bomp Records. He was young then--- very young--- and as nice a kid as you could know. That's the way he seemed to me, but I only knew him through a short series of meetings at a record store in San Diego I co-owned. Those meetings, a would-be consortium of musicians and music supporters hoping to carve out a small segment of the money-dominated scene for themselves, was but one of many germs of what would become a punk/new wave petri dish that would make waves more outside of that city and in the press than in the city itself. Javier would not long after leave with his band for Los Angeles, hoping for more. He would find that more but it would take him another move, this time to Austin to team up with brother Alejandro in the now legendary band True Believers.

I lost track of him after that. I had by then moved to Seattle and lost track of many of those I had met or known in San Diego. Just recently, though, through mutual friend Gary Heffern (who had been part of the meetings and part of the SD punk scene as vocalist and madman for The Penetrators) I found Javier again and, more importantly, his music. Specifically his new album, City Lights. Now, I admit to not really knowing what to expect because it had been how many years? Over twenty, at least. Well, what I got was certainly not what I expected. It is way more.

The kid I remembered was strung out on attitude and power chords gunned from the hip. He was quiet until you put him in front of an amp at which time he became loud and in-your-face. His energy-infused style set you back on your heels when it was making you jump or sway. He was, in a word, young. He is no longer young except maybe at heart. Not young the way he was. He knows a lot more than the three chords he grew up with and whips a guitar into submission like he was born to it. He doesn't sling guitar anymore. He plays it.

Javier has somehow assimilated music from decades past and worked it into today, something I did not see coming. I should have. He comes from an incredibly musical family. He had to have spent his early childhood sitting in front of speakers listening to anything and everything his brothers and cousins tossed on the record player. Music from the fifties and sixties. Rock 'n' roll. Pop. Jazz. He absorbed it. You can hear it.

Keep On Tryin', for instance, is straight from The Strangeloves school of music, crunchy guitar and driving (and I mean driving) rhythms straight out of the sixties. Toss in the simple organ and the length of the song (2:21) and it will fry your brain--- assuming you get The Strangeloves. (If you haven't heard them, you should. They have videos all over YouTube) Upbeat rocker Tonight Is Gonna Be Better has that pop edge that screams New Wave as does See You Around with its slightly Brit-influenced chord progression on the chorus. The verse on The Music Keeps On Playing echos the chorus on Johnny Mathis' What Will My Mary Say and that might have been a bad thing except the rest of the song bookends that verse to perfection. As rock ballad, it, well, rocks. I know it is only me, but the combination of Javier and the sound of one of the most unknown of the unknowns (Oami) sends a chill up my spine, Under the Stars having just enough of that New York band's sound to make me believe in fate. No, I'm sure Javier had no idea. I'm sure Oami didn't, either. Want a little folk-influenced rock? Twelve-string guitar drags Another Day Passes By through the ether nicely. It's amazing what a little of the right harmony and a twelve-string can do to those of us who lived through the folk-rock insurgence of the late sixties. It takes me back. Add Our Last Goodbye to that statement. More twelve-string. More late-sixties. I love it.

There are moments on this album that fry my brain. The incredibly short guitar solo on Keep On Tryin', so short your ears almost get whiplash, but oh so good. The more-controlled crunchy rhythm guitar--- identical to but so much more controlled than during The Zeros' days. The smooth but rocking pop feel of Just a Dream, a song I almost forget about each time through this album until it comes on and then I wonder how I could possibly forget.

I am very pleasantly surprised at how well Javier implements his influences to the songs. The result is a sound not quite retro and not quite today, or maybe it is today with its roots showing through. There is hardly a moment I don't hear something I really like, whether it be just a major chord progression or one of Javier's all-too-short blisters of a solo. Oh, there is more. Harmonies. Rhythm. Melody. And guitar. As short as most of these songs are, there is ample guitar. Thing is, sometimes the solos are so short I find myself listening to it again right away. It is the less is more thing, I suppose. When you don't get enough, you double or triple it. It's better that way.

The old phrase comes to mind--- “Honey, our little boy's growing up.” That's what is cool about this album. Javier isn't quite grown yet. He's still growing. I'm going to really enjoy listening to City Lights but admit that it has whetted my appetite for what is to come. The next Javier Escovedo album. Did I mention that I knew him (kind of) when he was with The Zeros? I did, huh? Well, if he keeps this up, I'll be mentioning it again. Stay tuned.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.


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