It’s the contemporary version of the old icebreaker question, but instead of “Who would you invite to a dinner party?” it’s “Who would you want to spend the quarantine with?” Raul Malo has entered his bid to be your quarantine mate with this double album of 30 songs that he created while hunkering down in the months that he and his band, the Mavericks, were sidelined from touring during the pandemic.
Quarantined at home, he began to release YouTube videos of some of his favorite songs, playing solo with a Mellotron or guitar, eventually inviting some guests, including the Mavericks and his sons, to form the Malo Family Band. The result is a pandemic perambulation through 20th-century popular music. There are songs from the early rock canon, Tin Pan Alley, and tunes representing his Latin heritage and other surprises, such as the Italian traditional “Santa Lucia” and the Irish nostalgia of “Galway Bay”.
Malo’s warm baritone keeps even the sparest of the arrangements here sounding lush and full. Malo proves himself a for-real romantic here and walks a fine line with songs that might have stumbled into kitschiness in lesser hands. But for every “Forever and Ever” and “Sweet Caroline”, Malo nails some classics hard and makes them his own, such as Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl” made popular by Bruce Springsteen and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”.
Again and again, Malo strips away an old tune’s fluff to reveal a heartfelt song, sometimes with overlooked messages. In the opening “Love”, from Disney’s Robin Hood, there is: “Once we watched a lazy world go by / Now the days seem to fly by / Life is brief, but when it’s gone, love goes on and on.” With “Cha Cha Cha D’amour”, made famous by Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin, Malo dispenses with the Nelson Riddle horn arrangement to make it a lighter, sweet confection. He also saves “Spanish Eyes” from the bombastic original from Englebert Humperdinck, making it a smoldering, clave-driven ballad.
The first album of the double set leans toward older and more sentimental songs, ending with John Prine’s “I Just Want to Dance With You”, made famous by country music star George Strait. Compared to the earlier versions, Malo slows the tune down and removes the country-music twang, adding a subtle Latin clave to the swelling Mellotron, getting at the narrator’s emotional directness. “If we have a chance to make one heart of two / I just want to dance with you.”
The second album invites friends to Malo’s quarantine party, including his bandmates from the Mavericks, going from a spot-on rendition of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” to a revisit of their song “We’re All Waiting for the World to End”. The latter song, unfortunately, is more appropriate than ever. The rowdy ska tune and its sardonic lyrics are a perfect counter to the grim and gray time many of us have experienced. “So in conclusion / Here’s the solution / Just live your life until you die, my friend / Have no regrets / And don’t forget / We’re all waiting for the world to end.”
While Malo’s voice is the star of the show, he does lay down a few notable instrumentals. That includes a surprisingly lovely “Those Were the Days” made famous by the warbling Archie and Edith Bunker in the iconic sitcom All in the Family. There’s also a surf guitar-led version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” that sounds right out of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack.
Not your typical listening experience, Quarantunes seems at times like you’ve stumbled into a karaoke night with some unexpectedly stirring performances or a low-fi do-it-yourself audition tape from a promising up-and-comer. The pandemic may have shaken America’s grip on irony and made life a bit more serious. Still, Malo meets the moment, bringing his big, baritone heart to songs like “Besame Mucho” that others might have thought had passed their expiration dates.
The past year will undoubtedly become synonymous with tough and sad times. Still, the tunes Malo wrested from quarantine leave evidence of the artist’s indefatigable resiliency and our desire for emotional attachment, particularly the companionship of the like-minded.