Despite considerable chart success in the past, the Mavericks have never really fit into the Nashville scene. The band seems to prefer horns over pedal steel guitar, and vocalist Raul Malo’s love for his native rhythms usually goes beyond the cursory dusting of border flavor that every country artist apart from Willy Nelson seems to favor. Add to that Malo’s strong, Roy Orbison-inspired vocals, and you generally have music that’s about as far away from twang as you can get. Still, with sweeping pop country like “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down”, “What a Crying Shame”, and “Here Comes the Rain”, the Mavericks stand as a country band with few peers, a band that can swing with the best of them.
That group vision recently entered a holding pattern with the release of Malo’s 2001 solo effort, Today, which found the lead singer exploring his Cuban roots more fully and taking his sweeping songwriting talents to their natural conclusions. It was such a strong effort that a new Mavericks record seemed almost like an afterthought: you could be forgiven for thinking the group had achieved all that it could, and that Malo saw a bold new solo path before him.
Turns out that Today truly did represent a break — and not the end of the band — as the Mavericks offer up another new album. True, Malo’s the band’s chief songwriter and dominant visionary, but the Mavericks as a band possess a different personality than Malo’s solo efforts. In fact, Today was probably a necessary step for Malo — a chance to fully explore his Cuban background free from the constraints of a band that didn’t always want to go that way. Today didn’t completely get Cuban rhythms out of Malo’s system (nor should it have; they’re obviously woven into the fiber of his being), but it’s safe to say that they take a backseat on The Mavericks.
As if to underscore the point, The Mavericks kicks off with “I Wanna Know”. The song’s blend of jangly guitar and organ are so steeped in the vintage Springsteen playbook that you halfway expect a Clarence Clemons sax solo. “In My Dreams” is a mix of Tom Petty-style guitar, epic strings, and Malo’s trademark vocals. “By the Time” blends reverb-heavy guitar, gently-paced acoustic strumming, and B3 organ, while “Would You Believe” sounds for all the world like a cosmic rewrite of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”. “A Little Too Lonely” makes good use of a loungey vibe, sprinkles of piano, and muted guitar jazziness. For some reason, Malo drops into a different register to sing “Time Goes By”, but Willy Nelson’s world-worn vocals are a perfect fit, and the song really works as a dose of stripped-down Mavericks soul.
Of the few songs that venture south of the border, “Shine a Light” teems with spry Cuban rhythms and horns, and is one of the few times the Mavericks really kick up their heels. On the other side of the fence, “Wandering” basks in a gentle rumba, fleshed out by plaintive accordion that places the song somewhere between a cantina and a French cafe. “San Jose” finds Malo really stretching out in Roy Orbison mode for one of the disc’s most evocative cuts, although the strings sabotage the whole affair.
Taken as a whole, those strings are the album’s biggest problem: they’re too slick, too produced, and often too synthetic sounding to properly match the band’s more sombre moments. Think vintage Doris Day, or Burt Bacharach, and you’re in the right mind to imagine the syrup that drips over a little too much of The Mavericks. It’s a shame, because the band’s horns and other musical touches are assured and spot-on. The Mavericks have always enjoyed their share of gloss, but the strings that coat much of this disc feel like a shortcut, and they ultimately dim the lustre of some really fine songs. Fans will find plenty to like about The Mavericks, but they may also feel like the band doesn’t break any new ground. To their credit, the Mavericks still aren’t courting country radio, and The Mavericks is a welcome return, but the album falls short of earlier releases.