Sanctuary Records, 2003
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/15/2003
In a musical landscape dominated by formula, where corporate-chain radio stations serve up the same 20 pre-programmed songs day after day after day, the Mavericks are an anomaly, a band that actually lives up to everything their name implies.
Back after a four-year hiatus with this, their fifth major-label disc, the Mavericks show no more interest in occupying a neat little record label marketing niche than they did last time around. The fact that this album is self-titled and on a new label (Sanctuary) makes for a nice "new beginning" angle to the story, but it's really a continuation of the musical smorgasbord approach the band flirted with through the '90s and perfected on 1998's Trampoline.
There's rippling, melodic country-rock (the superb opener "I Wanna Know"), swooning lounge ballads ("I'm Wondering," "Too Lonely"), sassy big-band horns over a country beat ("Because of You") and a Havana-style agnostic tent revival anthem ("Shine Your Light"). There's an oddly bouncy little piece of armchair philosophy that can't decide if it wants to be Isaac Asimov or Englebert Humperdink ("Would You Believe?"). And there's a lanky, loping Casablanca-quoting duet with Willie Nelson ("Time Goes By")…!
What there isn't, is any kind of consistent build or flow to the music. And in truth, that's a big part of the charm of the Mavericks; they play what they want to play, and you either go along or not. Either way, they're not about to conform to anyone's expectations. The down side of this is that some of their efforts work better than others. "I Wanna Know" harks back to their early hit "What A Crying Shame," a potent combination of soaring melody over rock and roll drive, with some of the more clever, searching lyrics vocalist/songwriter Raul Malo has ever come up with. "Shine Your Light" and the soaring, Orbisonesque "In My Dreams" have similar energy and power. But the momentum isn't sustained, mostly because Malo once again overindulges in melodramatic ballads that do a great job of showing off his fabulous voice, but leave the rest of the band - and at least part of the audience -- somewhat disengaged.
For those fans whose primary attraction to the Mavericks is Malo's vocal magnificence, this may be an irrelevant complaint. The dude has one of the biggest, richest, purest voices in music today, and it gets another workout here. There are moments when that just isn't enough for me, though, a prime example being this album's startling closer. The Hollies' 1974 top 40 hit "The Air That I Breathe" is, in this reviewer's opinion, one of the cheesiest pieces of pop-schlock balladry ever committed to vinyl. To be fair, Malo and company succeed in dressing it up with a committed, passionate performance, but it still comes off as the musical equivalent of lipstick on a pig. And my question is: why? What's the point?
I'm starting to think there isn't one. Much like alt-rock's Barenaked Ladies, The Mavericks' niche is that they refuse to occupy one. And I admire that attitude in theory, but the way the Mavericks put it into practice -- heavy on the showmanship, light on the substance -- sometimes makes it feel like schtick. This band -- Malo on vocals and guitar, Robert Reynolds on bass, Paul Deakin on drums and newcomer Eddie Perez on guitar -- is too talented to consign itself to being a novelty act. Musical gifts like theirs call for songs with substance. You'll find some here, but not enough.