Today

Raul Malo

Higher Octave Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/04/2002

"Quick - name someone associated with Cuban music. Couldn't come up with someone? Don't feel bad - had it not been for Ry Cooder and Buena Vista Social Club, quite possibly the only recognizable name in this genre would have been Desi Arnaz and his "Ricky Ricardo" character."

So wrote "Daily Vault" Grand Poobah Christopher Thelen back on February 14 in his review of Cuba Swings from J.P. Torres And His Cuban All Stars. Which made this reviewer want to throw my arms in the air and bellow "Hey! Wait! Over here!"

Because - with all due respect to my pal Chris -- the answer is, and has been for several years, Raul Malo.

To be sure, prior to 1995's Music For All Occasions, Malo and his former band the Mavericks were primarily a country-rock outfit, albeit one with a twist. It seemed Malo and company never would cooperate with the A&R department (and radio programmers) by settling into a single "safe" genre, instead applying any number of different shadings to their neo-traditionalist musical base. After a couple of well-regarded albums but no major hits, the Mavericks began to branch out even further, exploring a diverse palette of influences ranging from Tex-mex to countrypolitan to lounge soul to lead singer Malo's own Cuban roots. In the end the principal point of consistency for the band was Miami native Malo's magnificent voice, a rangy, stunningly expressive cross between Roy Orbison and the one and only Elvis.

And while my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Music For All Occasions embraced a variety of approaches, the band's 1998 follow-up Trampoline audaciously zeroed in on the one that lay perhaps farthest out of the mainstream. If you've ever wondered what Hank Williams might have sounded like fronting the aforementioned Ricky Ricardo's Havana big band (answer: awesome!), Trampoline is for you.

Needless to say, it wasn't for country radio. It appeared to receive little label support and died an untimely death on the charts, putting the band in limbo. Other than a sardonic 1999 greatest hits disc ( Super Colossal Smash Hits Of The 90s) that was one third new songs and one third songs that never charted, the band has been without a label and on ice since the Trampoline tour ended. Malo's response might be summed up as, The hell with this. I'm going to make the music I want to make.

Which turns out to be an entire album of frothy big band salsa featuring an all-star cast of players from Latin supergroup Los Super Seven, among others. And while it's certainly not going to be everybody's cup of tea, make no mistake - this album rocks.

Every track here has that island vibe, rhythmic piano playing laid over a writhing bed of congas, timbales and other Latin percussion, the entire concoction spiced with precision bursts of trumpet, trombone and sax. Malo wisely kicks things off with the giddy title track, a party tune that sets your feet tapping and hips undulating until you start grasping around for a margarita and a dance partner, quick. "I See You" takes a dramatic turn, adding call-and-answer vocals and flute, before sliding right into the slower - but just as urgent -- "Every Little Thing About You."

It's worth noting that, although most of the trappings of country-rock are long gone, Malo hasn't shaken the lyrical theme of his Mavericks days -- loss and longing. Almost every track here - whether sung in English or, on four tracks, in Spanish -- has the narrator confronted by a major romantic obstacle of some sort, either fighting or lamenting it. And while any good writer knows you need conflict to create drama, Malo can be something of a one-trick pony on this count.

That's why you savor upbeat cuts like "Today," "I Said I Love You" and "Takes Two To Tango," in which Malo executes a witty, sensuous duet with that other Nashville genre-bender Shelby Lynne. The band's greatest passion may actually be reserved for the Spanish cuts, though, especially the rousing "Ya Tu Veras," which has positively Santana-esque energy, albeit with a flute taking the place of Carlos' guitar solo.

Today is obviously a statement straight from Malo's heart, and as such, you feel almost obligated to give it your respect, even if it does feel like there's a certain sameness to the themes and melodies after seven or eight tracks. Put it this way; it's an album with a definite, distinct flavor, and if you like that flavor, you'll like this disc a lot.

And that flavor is, just for the record, distinctly Cuban.

Rating: B+

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Higher Octave Records, and is used for informational purposes only.