Big Red Machine Big Red Machine (PEOPLE/Jagjaguwar)
Big Red Machine is a long-in-the-making project led by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Its roots go back to an eponymous song the pair created for Dark Is the Night, a momentous 2009 compilation in the Red Hot series benefiting the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Besides the usual physical formats, the album is being released on PEOPLE, a new digital platform co-founded by the two musicians with a few others and which was part of the record’s creative process, with contributions from a varied roster including Lisa Hannigan, The Staves, Brad Cook, JT Bates and several of Dessner’s bandmates.
Keeping that in mind, it’s difficult to consider the music separately from its source and the predominant sounds on Big Red Machine reflect its collective nature.
Some of the tunes have more than a dozen musicians and there are layers upon layers of vocals and electronic and acoustic sounds throughout.
Sometimes they enhance the listening pleasure, like on Lyla, Gratitude and Hymnostic, while sometimes they’re more of a distraction (Air Stryp, Melt).
Since he’s the lead singer and lyricist — some of the words border on stream of consciousness, others are more straightforward — Vernon’s presence is the most immediate.
Some of the album’s best moments, however, including the meditative Forest Green and the comparatively conventional I Won’t Run From It, have Dessner’s soundprints all over them.
According to its creators, PEOPLE is meant to give musicians and artists an easily accessible environment to exhibit works in progress as well as final products, react and add to each other’s efforts and spawn collaborations.
The 10 songs on Big Red Machine are loaded with experimentation, some of it exquisite, some excessive.
As the first tangible result of the project, it’s an auspicious start.
Alejandro Escovedo The Crossing (Yep Roc)
Drawing up a family tree of Alejandro Escovedo’s lengthy career results in a small forest with branches spread out across punk, rock and alt-country.
Now 67, he’s been in bands like The Nuns, Rank and File and the True Believers; his family includes niece Sheila E., his brothers were in groups like L.A. punk pioneers the Zeroes, and he’s released over a dozen solo albums since his excellent 1992 debut, Gravity, including three thundering collections produced by David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti.
Texas-born to Mexican immigrants, Escovedo describes The Crossing as saying “more about me than any of my records, without it being a record about me.” Nominally, the songs are about a pair of immigrants — Salvo from Italy, Diego from Mexico — whose Texan experiences with the American Dream don’t quite match their expectations.
But mentions of the Zeroes, the Stooges, Johnny Thunders, MC5, the Plugz and other marvels of American culture, as well as U.S. and Mexican writers and poets, put Escovedo in the middle of the story.
Recorded in Italy with local band Don Antonio, whose leader Antonio Gramentieri co-wrote the album, and with a handful of guests such as fellow Texan Joe Ely and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, The Crossing has a story that doesn’t bode well, even if it claims to have no ending.
Sonica USA rocks mightily, Tex-Mex elevates Outlaw for You and the narration on Rio Navidad, where Diego encounters a retired Texas Ranger at a San Antonio wedding, gives it a powerful emotional kick.
The Crossing’s most urgent songs are reflective, passionate and defiant, like Escovedo himself.