With a couple bright smacks of guitar and a fiddle hook, "Always A Friend" announces Alejandro Escovedo's Real Animal as a sort of alt-country victory lap. (He even invites his lover to "bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I'll never find," should he wrong her.) On the whole, the album isn't drenched in sorrow and exhaustion like 2006's The Boxing Mirror. Nor is it an entire set of jolly "great to be alive" statements like "People (We're Only Gonna Live So Long)," on which he sings, "I love people." Escovedo sounds much more loving when he claws into his subject matter, dredging up visions of the past with rugged affection and a touch of mockery. "Nuns Song" gives a violent, funny, spit-flecked shout to his old punk band The Nuns: "We know we're not in tune / we know we'll never be great." The underrated Chuck Prophet co-wrote Real Animal's songs, and it seems his mischief rubbed off on wistful tunes like "Swallows Of San Juan." "Next time you see me, I'm gonna smile for the camera / like some wild man from Pompeii," Escovedo sings, but patiently, as if he expects nobody to get caught up in those words. Leave it to him to fascinate even when he just wants to clear out a few closets and keep on smiling.