Like Warren Zevon before him, Alejandro Escovedo is a peculiar kind of musical outlaw, drawn to darkly shaded visions of America, yet preferring to present them with a deep, clean sound. He's a classic rock guy with an indie-rock soul, and each new album is an event, since he's persistently capable of popping out a new singer-songwriter standard. Escovedo's latest, The Boxing Mirror, opens with an instant classic, "Arizona," a slow, swirling song that spins Escovedo's recent brushes with mortality into myth. Over a rich string arrangement, he urges others to have the drink that hepatitis has permanently denied him, and referring to his onstage collapse in Tucson, he moans, "I've been empty since Arizona."
The rest of The Boxing Mirror is similarly smart and typically eclectic, as Escovedo nods to '80s-styled rock anthems, traditional Mexican folk music, weepy pop ballads, and even heavy metal (on "Sacramento & Polk," a re-do of an Escovedo live staple that matches the ranting lyrics with a rush of speed and volume). But as is often the case with Escovedo, a certain necessary edge is missing. John Cale's production is foursquare and booming, turning wispy, sweet songs like "Looking For Love" into cloying pap. And while it's hard to dismiss an album that ends with a song as poetic and majestic as the title track, it's easy to wish that the presentation were as adventurous as the songwriting.
Contemporary troubadour Tim Easton has a similar problem on his new Ammunition, which follows the meticulous, catchy 2003 record Break Your Mother's Heart with stripped-down songs that follow a more conventional folk-country blueprint. In individual servings, songs like the spookily allusive "Black Dog" and the sorrowfully romantic "Next To You" sound striking, but the record as a whole seems to shortchange Easton's pop gifts in favor of a low-to-the-ground authenticity that he doesn't really need. Ammunition's songs are generally strong, but the recordings sound like demos for something better, never to be heard.