[5 March 2009]
Raul Malo has the most operatic voice in American popular music since Marty Robbins and Roy Orbison. The trouble is, he’s spent the better part of the last decade releasing lukewarm cover albums more befitting a smoking jacket-clad lounge singer than one of our generation’s most stunning voices. Though the material he chose—including songs by Roger Miller, The Louvin Brothers, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson—was superlative, Malo’s interpretation of the classics left a lot to be desired. With Lucky One, his first album on Fantasy Records, the former Mavericks frontman finally returns to old form. He reveals his numerous musical influences; not only the Bakersfield country movement and the string-heavy Nashville Sound of country crooners Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, but also jazz, big band, and Latin pop. Listening to the album’s 12 tracks is a bit like taking a field trip through the history of American music with an excellent and knowledgeable tour guide.
The title track and album opener “Lucky One” sets the tone for the first half of the album, several tracks’ worth of infectious and memorable melodies and fantastic arrangements. It’s absolutely irresistible, sure to make even the most miserable listener crack a smile. Just try to keep your feet from tapping along to the Latin-influenced beat as Malo sings, “I’m the lucky one / I’ll always be the lucky one as long as you are close to me / Like a gamblin’ man who always holds a winning hand / Losing’s just a thought I can’t conceive.” The next track, “Moonlight Kiss”, features a chant-along male chorus reminiscent of the same on the Four Lads’ 1950s classic “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”.
Several tracks on Lucky One are actually the demo versions that Malo recorded at his Nashville home before even stepping foot into the studio. For the remaining tracks, Malo enlisted a man who happens to know a thing or two about mixing Latin, pop, and country music: producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. The two men are an excellent team, crafting songs that sound both timeless and fresh.
Malo truly shines on the upbeat numbers, but a few of the ballads on what would be Side B of an LP version of the album tend to drag, thanks to their uninspired lyrics and generic musical backing. The Spanish-influenced “Rosalie”, in particular, is incredibly boring. Malo’s slow-as-continental-drift delivery doesn’t help matters, no matter how flawless his vocals may sound. Meanwhile, the sappy “One More Angel” clocks in at over five minutes, an excruciatingly long time when one has to listen to cookie-cutter lyrics about angels in heaven looking down. Come on, Raul. Save it for Martina McBride. Lucky One then ends on a whimper with “So Beautiful”, which is likely one of the worst songs of Malo’s solo career.
Overall, the good songs on this album outweigh the average and just plain boring tracks. Most of all, it’s good to see Raul Malo back to recording original work, even if it took him seven years to get here. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another seven years for his next effort.