If Alejandro Escovedo's life has been an open book, his music has provided the soundtrack -- chapters of which recount his father's move north from Mexico, his ex-wife's suicide in 1991, his divorce from his second wife in 2001, and his diagnosis of hepatitis C last year. Having bad stuff happen to you, again and again and again, is a hell of a way to find inspiration. No matter how brilliant his songs, these chamber-punk-rock-a-country beasts that willfully defy classification have always worked best within the confines and context of the whole. It seems a hopeless prospect to reduce Gravity, A Man Under the Influence, and By the Hand of the Father to salvageable parts, when the sum is some kind of overwhelming.
How, then, can 30 disparate artists, from Cowboy Junkies to Ian Hunter to cousin Sheila E., make sense of the songs when they're left to fend for themselves? Pretty easily, turns out. Like the man himself, they go to the heart of the songs and wring those bastards dry. It's a record nobody really wants to exist; like those old Sweet Relief comps intended to raise dough for sick musicians without insurance, it's there to help a talented man pay his mounting bills, which is hellish inspiration. But there's the rub: What's a great Al Escovedo album without a sad story behind it?