Alejandro Escovedo has been toiling around the rock underground for more than 20 years, first with alt-country forefathers Rank and File, then with roots rockers the True Believers. He's sort of No Depression's elder statesman, an Austin resident who gets the nod of approval from both contemporaries and the young 'uns. And for the past nine years, he's tried to kick a solo career into something more than a status thing. On his fifth album, A Man Under the Influence, Escovedo pulls in some heavies for assistance (Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Mitch Easter, and producer Chris Stamey among them). But it's the 11 songs, some of the finest of his career (certainly the best group of them since Rank and File's 1982 debut, Sundown), that propel this hip slab of twangy houserockers and weepers. Concurrently tragic and rejoicing (the mournful "Wedding Day" is followed by the triumphant "Velvet Guitar"), A Man Under the Influence finally achieves what Escovedo's past albums got only half right.
And the crucial point is the focus on melody over atmosphere. Escovedo merges his Tex Mex-spiced artsy instincts with Beatlesque melodies, weaving down the long and winding road toward something that's damn near pop at times. The opening track, "Wave," is moody for the first three minutes, dragging years of hardship behind it; by the time the drums and harmonies slide in, the song is prepared for some sort of musical redemption. But they emerge for only a moment, a brief respite from the misery. In a way, this sums up A Man Under the Influence: It's a heartbreak beat with occasional spurts of glory.