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Escovedo has gotten much closer to the gold ring than Graham has. In 2008, Escovedo signed with Bruce Springsteen’s management team and released Real Animal, which was produced by frequent David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, co-written with Green on Red’s Chuck Prophet, and marked by “Always a Friend,” which might as well have been the best Rolling Stones single in 25 years. Street Songs of Love tries to duplicate that achievement by bringing back Visconti and Prophet; Springsteen even duets with Escovedo on “Faith.” But the songwriting suggests the Boss’ later work far more than his early stuff, and by abandoning his trademark string arrangements, Escovedo now sounds less distinctive.
Still, the album’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Escovedo’s new songs focus not on the rock ’n’ roll life (as his previous collection did) but on romance, an infinitely more interesting topic. The opening track, the ear-grabbing “Anchor,” could be an outtake from Bowie’s Young Americans, with female harmonizers adding R&B “ooohs” to the bruising guitar riffs as Escovedo recklessly declares that he’s “in love with love” despite knowing that it will inevitably break him in two.
“Tula,” which sounds like an Exile on Main Street leftover, intensifies that ambivalence by hinting, “There’s more to this life than a random kiss” to the suggestive sounds of rumbling drums and jittery, echo-soaked guitar. “Down in the Bowery” is one of Escovedo’s greatest ballads. Like a rock-singing Polonius backed by the most tender of guitar parts, he tells his teenage son: “I want to see you out on the street making a scene.” And on “Fall Apart with You,” his fetching melody and confident rhythm section make new love, even a doomed new love, seem irresistible.
In recent years, Escovedo has frequently brought Amy Cook along as an opening act and backing singer on his tours. He’s now produced Cook’s new album, Let the Light In, lending his band’s polish and muscle to her warbling and acoustic-guitar strumming. But it’s hard to understand what Escovedo hears in this woman whose thin soprano and limp poeticisms are little different from what you can hear in any local coffeehouse on any given night.
Escovedo has far more in common with his erstwhile bandmate, who’s equally suspicious of false hopes and just as enamored with melodic guitar riffs. Like their colleague James McMurtry, Escovedo and Graham hold down weekly gigs at South Austin’s Continental Club, where, in relative obscurity, the three bandleaders are still creating vital rock ’n’ roll.