Working on a Drear: Escovedo sounds too much like late-period Springsteen.

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Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham have a lot in common. In the mid-’80s, they were both members of the True Believers, a Texas band that suggested what Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo might have sounded like if he’d instead fronted the New York Dolls. They were both devastated when EMI refused to release the band’s impressive second album, which seemed likely to catapult the quintet from the Southwest touring circuit to the national stage. In 1987, they both hunkered down in Austin; absorbed the Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark tradition of Texas songwriting; translated their bitterness into dark, knifing songs; and re-emerged in the ’90s as two of the decade’s finest bandleaders. Their new work was even better than what they’d produced with the True Believers.

Their best songs, though, came in the new century, when both artists pared away everything unnecessary. Gone were the comforting bromides for their fellow baby boomers. Gone was the gratuitous guitar noise the kids wanted. Gone was the polish that radio—commercial and public—craved. What was left, on albums like Graham’s Full and Escovedo’s Man Under the Influence, was a terrible, spare beauty. The same is true on their latest releases, Graham’s It’s Not as Bad as It Looks and Escovedo’s Street Songs of Love, although only one really succeeds.

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Stardom has remained elusive for the two men, and so has good health. Both have struggled with alcohol and other drugs; Escovedo almost died from hepatitis in 2003, and Graham was nearly killed in 2008 when he fell asleep driving home from a gig. He swears that when the Texas state trooper pulled him from the wreckage, he wisecracked, “It’s not as bad as it looks.” It’s that ability to stand unbowed and unsobered in the face of heartbreak and mortality—to convert a death’s-door joke into an album title—that marks the music of these two survivors.

It’s hard to imagine a song sounding less sugarcoated than “Beautifully Broken,” the first cut on Graham’s album. Introduced by a gutsy guitar riff and a half-strangled yelp, it describes a bar-band musician locked up in rehab. The setup invites sympathy for this poor guy, as though he were McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Graham quickly dashes that impulse. His protagonist is “not beautifully broken, just broken, that’s all.” Graham’s voice collapses on the word “broken,” but the guitar goes on without him, as if to acknowledge that the world moves on without its casualties.

“Burning Off the Cane” describes Graham’s childhood in the Rio Grande Valley, where farmers burned sugar cane fields in milewide fires that produced towering smoke plumes; the song’s melody is slow and gorgeous, an elegy for left-behind innocence. “I Said” describes Austin’s notorious grackles, glowering black birds that sound as ugly as they look. Graham admits that even these dumb fowl knew before he did that his lover had left, but he doesn’t care: He’s going to stand in the street and bellow, “I still love you, whether you love me or not.”

Following this bleak opening triptych, the small glimmers of hope that Graham latches onto on It’s Not as Bad as It Looks register as major triumphs. Having survived not only a brush with death, but also a hundred lesser stumbles, he’s willing to acknowledge life’s shortcomings. But on “My Lucky Day,” if Graham can find three dimes or hear Neil Young and the Clash back-to-back on the radio, he’s ready to set his and Mike Hardwick’s guitars ringing from the steeple in victory. All the more poignant for their rarity, such moments of joy underscore what may well be the album’s core message: “If this is it, let’s get it while it’s there.”