Fans of Raul Malo will, no doubt, appreciate this effort, however, those individuals led to believe by the title of the album, The Nashville Acoustic Sessions, that this CD is somehow, scaled back, rootsy, and free of the candy sweet, slick production that plagues most contemporary country will be sorely disappointed. If the creators of the album disagree, it is simply because they are too close or too much a part and product of the Nashville machine to escape its influence. One can almost envision this crew sitting around a bar somewhere close to Music Row in Nashville, smoking stogies, drinking martinis, talking about how they’re going to finally make an album their way, break the mold and all that, the smoke swirling up and around their admirable, but idealistic conversation.
To begin, the song selection is presumptuous, as if all involved thought, somehow, they were gifted enough to take an old war horse like “Moon River” and turn it into something cool. Actually, many of the selected songs and performances are rather vanilla. Of all Van Morrison’s wonderful tunes, they decided to record “Bright Side of the Road”, one of Morrison’s schmaltzier compositions.
It’s not all bad, though. The album opens with the Roy Orbison classic, recorded by many (and most notably Linda Ronstadt), “Blue Bayou”, which captures Malo at his most effective. Malo, often credited with superhuman versatility, is really just a solid crooner. Why fans and critics insist on turning him into something more than that is beyond reasoning. Rob Ickes, a phenomenal and in-demand dobro player, plays the opening licks flawlessly and continues to whine and wail throughout most of the album.
The high point of this collection of classics comes on the Louvin Brothers’ “The Great Atomic Power”, a song that possesses genuine bluegrass compositional genius. Malo sounds perfectly confident and at home on this catchy melody, as do all the musicians involved, particularly Ickes. Pat Flynn contributes mandolin, lending this track the authenticity some of the other tracks are found wanting. Malo sings, “Are you ready for that great atomic power / Will you rise and meet your savior in the air / Will you shout or will you cry when the fire rings from on high / Are you ready for that great atomic power?”
“Early Morning Rain”, the Gordon Lightfoot classic, also falls into the genre of things that Malo performs well. There is limited interpretation, no attempt at innovation. Malo and company let the song do the work for them, which is smart, especially when singing a song as pretty as this one. Pat Flynn and Rob Ickes do a wonderful job with the guitars, keeping things real and melodic.
Though Malo can sing blue notes, as any decent singer can, Malo is not a blues singer, which is apparent on the Hank Williams’s tune “Weary Blues from Waiting”. Malo’s voice is too pretty, too refined for this one, as it would be for many Hank tunes. The arrangement is also a bit lazy and uninspired. Everybody’s playing the right notes but they all seem to be going through the motions.
Malo’s version of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is another story, however. This is a beautiful, gentle, and heartfelt performance of a great song. Rob Ickes tears it up during the fade out at the end of the song, and Siedah Garrett contributes ethereal background vocals. Another track worth mentioning is the instrumental version of Jimmy Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train”. Ickes, once again, tears it up on dobro as does Pat Flynn on acoustic guitar.
The goal, to record an album of classic songs acoustically, is a worthy one. Unfortunately, pulling it off is not as easy as it might at first appear.
Nice try, but no cigar.