Alejandro Escovedo hasn't had it easy. His first wife committed suicide; his excellent, critically praised discs haven't set any charts afire; and he battled a recent bout of Hepatitis C without the support of health insurance (a situation that's unfortunately the norm for many sick musicians). With that in mind, one might expect his first release since 2002's By the Hand of the Father to be either brooding or vitriolic (and who'd blame him?). The Boxing Mirror finds Escovedo instead confronting assorted demons his own and others' passionately but free of self-absorption. His songs are mini-film noirs, populated by characters seeking a proverbial way out, mitigated by glimmers of compassion, tenacity and hope: "Have a drink on me/I've been empty since Arizona" and "Hold to the light/So no one will know/ We died a little today."Though his band numbers but nine members, it projects an orchestral depth and understated grandeur thanks to John Cale, whose alternately stark and opulent production evokes that of his own recordings (the pounding, feverish "Sacramento & Polk" would be at home on Cale's Fear). With Escovedo's plaintive voice exultant, the harrowing Mirror is one of the finest of this songwriter's career, as well as one of the best releases of 2006.