With their new album, En Español, the Mavericks are underlining the “alt” in their “alt-country” assignation, releasing a collection of songs solely with Spanish lyrics. This vibrant, sit-up-and-take-notice album has tunes that should bring the band’s country and rock fans easily over the border. But the Mavericks also do a lot of genre-melding, taking original and classic Latin songs and making them their own using everything from vintage rock to mariachi.
Since the eclectic band origin in 1989, they have undergone break-ups, reunions, and personnel changes, leaving only lead singer Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin as original members. Certainly, one of the consistent elements has been the deep, passionate vocals of Malo, whose singing can bring to mind Roy Orbison or classic male crooners like Elvis Presley. In his solo career apart from the Mavericks, Malo teamed up with members of Los Lobos and others for a Tex-Mex supergroup called Los Super Seven, and he included several Spanish-language songs on his 2001 debut solo album, Today. Recording an all-Spanish album with the Mavericks has been a long-time dream of his.
What may catch the ear and heart of country fans is the deep emotional palette of the songs – no detached irony here. Amid the big reverby guitar of “Sombras and Nada Mas (Shadows and Nothing More)”, Malo sings “I wish I could open my veins up slowly / And shed my blood upon your feet / So this way I can prove to you / That I can’t love much more.” The song was originally an Argentine tango and was a hit for Mexico’s Javier Solis in the 1960s, but Malo modeled his after a more-dramatic, lesser-known version done by Spanish singer Rocio Durcal, which gave his big voice more room to take over. In “Mujer (Woman)”, Malo takes listeners back to a slow doo-wop-like song of unrequited love, brightened by a light sprinkling of accordion and brought home with some retro twangy guitar.
Listeners who hear the breezy strings and 1960s folk-rock sounds of “Me Olvide de Vivir (I Forgot to Live)” and don’t get access to the Spanish lyrics will miss out on the poignant regret of the narrator, who looks back at his life and sings a cautionary tale. “After running through life with no brakes / I forgot that life is lived for a moment / Always wanting to be first in everything / I forgot to live the small details.” The song was originally in French, but a Spanish-language version was popularized by Julio Iglesias, although the Mavericks give it a bit more punch than the Latin pop icon.
In “Azul (Blue Sigh)” Malo again sings the praises of a woman he is crazy about, this time delivering the goods with a slow and sax-y horn section that could be swinging from E Street. That’s if the E Street Band had an accordion and shekere mixing with their tremolo Fender guitars. Malo, who was born in Miami to parents of Cuban heritage, has had his own eclectic musical career that has mixed American and Latin genres. On “Sabor A Mi (Taste of Me)”, he reconnects with his Caribbean roots with a slow, steamy bolero elevated by his clear, strong baritone. The lively “No Vale La Pena (It’s Not Worth It)”, another one of the album’s Mexican songs, is steeped in mariachi sounds and features San Antonio’s Flaco Jimenez on accordion.
The group’s 30th-anniversary tour last year was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they have been putting those first shows online as a pay-per-view series on nugs.tv. Though Malo is Cuban-American and the lyrics are all in Spanish, the music certainly has a distinctive rock pedigree. The Mavericks demonstrate the truth in their band’s name here more than ever, though the members have succeeded in making new music seem familiar and right at home in America, a melting pot of a country.