Music for all Occasions
Even looking back, with a fistful of quality albums under the band's belt, it's hard to imagine the Mavericks ever got a single note on the radio. Their breakthrough hit, 1994's "What a Crying Shame" soars and glides on a great rhythm and Raul Malo's silky tenor, but it certainly didn't fit anything else that Nashville was exporting at the time. It felt like one of those old prison movies, when the inmates find that brief window when the searchlights are turned away, and they make a break for it. They made a good run for it, too, releasing a half-dozen increasingly eclectic and diverting albums that made them one of country's most interesting bands. The obligatory best-ofs and compilations do a good job of catching the highlights, but listening to each album in sequence is like watching an already lovely flower bloom and bloom in increasingly tropical colors.
Over the years, the Mavericks maintained their affection for old-time country music -- the kind exemplified by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams -- but such limited avenues obviously chafed at their creative sensibilities. When all was said and done (and technically, the Mavericks are on indefinite hiatus, not officially broken up, so there may be more to come), the band had mutated into a highly presentable mix of Americana vibes rooted in Malo's Cuban heritage. Whatever dominant role traditional country had previously played in the band's repertoire, it was eventually relegated to the role of a tasty spice in a stew that included chunks of rockabilly, Joe Ely-influenced Tex-Mex swagger, and more than a little rock 'n' roll.
Malo's solo work began to creep out in the late '90s, with a mournful cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Downbound Train" for the Badlands compilation, a spot on one of Raffi's children's albums, and a place in the shifting ranks of Latin-American supergroup Los Super Seven. On that group's Canto, he seemed wonderfully at ease with the playful grooves that Los Lobos stalwarts Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo were pulling from every Latin corner of the globe. It sounds like a homecoming.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Malo's solo debut, Today, gleefully takes that torch and runs with it. Musically, there's hardly any connection to the formative years represented by the Mavericks. The only link is Malo's voice, surprisingly strong and sure no matter how many times you hear it. Today, though, is an eclectic mix of English- and Spanish-sung songs, glistening with the kind of fleet melodies that would make Ibrahim Ferrer proud.
The title track kicks off the album as a declaration of sorts. Sung in English, the song is nevertheless the product of Cuba's rich musical soil, mixing steel drums with playful horns and precise rhythmic shifts. The martial sway of "Every Little Thing About You" is incredibly evocative, calling up images of two dancers circling each other in a battle of wills as Malo croons, "every little thing about you / makes it hard to live without you". The disc reaches its zenith of salsa-laced danceability, though, with "I Said I Love You", a frenetic cut with plenty of spring in its step. The disc's strangest cut is probably "Two to Tango", a tipsy duet with Shelby Lynne. Whether the song works is probably how open you are to leaving the lush but controlled world that Today has created for itself. A bit ramshackle and off-the-cuff, "Two to Tango" even includes a most convincing Dr. John impersonation on Malo's part.
The Spanish-sung numbers are different, obviously, in the language choice, but they also allow Malo to even further immerse himself in his Cuban roots. Today's vibe is so strong that even the album's English lyrics feel like they're coming from some warmer, lusher part of the world, but songs like "Ya Tu Veras", "No Me Preguntes Tanto", and "Ocho Versos" allow him to throw compromise completely out the window. Lyrically, he's no poet, but he gets the message across in plainspoken terms. Part of that success is obviously due to his pipes and his diverse musical approach, but a share of the credit should also go to Steve Berlin's production. It's clear, but not brash. It's warm, but not murky. Berlin, who also produced both Los Super Seven albums, seems fully comfortable with the demands of full-bore Latino music (since he's also a member of Los Lobos, that comes as no surprise). This is a batch of torch songs, no matter which way you cut it, and everything about the record works towards the goal of seductive lamentation. By the time Malo closes the book on Today with the gentle light jazz of "Since When", he's shown about every healthy angle of romantic longing there is.
Malo's new approach might not be for everybody, but anyone who followed the Mavericks through the last few years probably isn't too hung up on strict genre borders anyway. An album like Today marks a true iconoclastic streak, though, that's surprising nevertheless. I can't say how Malo's new direction will play in Latin circles (probably pretty darn well), but to an extent, he's momentarily left Nashville's potentially lucrative waters for the playlists of National Public Radio. NPR imparts a certain tweedy street cred, but it's rarely the road to riches -- one more reason to see Today as the labor of love it obviously is. It's doubtful that Malo has severed all ties with Nashville -- the golden age of Country music surely runs through his veins as powerfully as his Cuban-American ancestry -- but Today puts him in the enviable position of having musical New Worlds before him. It'll be fascinating to see what paths he takes as he explores them.