Some might be surprised to learn that The Mavericks have never in their 30 years as a band released an all-Spanish album, but it makes some sense when you know their story. Mavericks co-founder Raul Malo is a first-generation American (his Cuban-born parents escaped the Castro regime in the early 1960s and settled in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, where Malo was born), and he was raised around a wide variety of Latin sounds. But by the time the band was formed in 1989, their focus was American-leaning roots-based rock and roll, country, Tex-Mex, and folk music. They gave the country music airwaves a much-needed kick of diversity in the early ’90s, led by Malo’s Orbison-esque vocals and the sturdy backbeat of drummer Paul Deakin over Latin-tinged, neo-traditional country and pre-Beatles roots rock.
The Mavericks took an almost decade-long hiatus in the early 2000s, reforming in 2012 amid a new musical landscape, but one they navigated confidently with a string of acclaimed albums and concerts. They bookended their 30th year with the most fun-filled Christmas album in years at the end of 2018, and an all-covers album, The Mavericks Play the Hits, to close 2019. They now treat us to En Español. With three back-to-back “theme” albums, one may make the mistake of wondering if The Mavericks are running out of ideas, but in fact they are stretching out, becoming more creatively adventurous and, as a result, more exciting than at any time in their long career.
En Español takes us on a journey that begins and ends in Malo’s parents’ homeland of Cuba, and travels through Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and even France. Seven of the 12 tracks are traditional Latin standards, while five are originals written or co-penned by Malo. The opener sets the tone with Malo’s tremolo-heavy guitar introducing “La Sitiera,” a favorite recorded by Cuban legend Omara Portuonda, among others. The Mavericks’ version builds slowly over its six minutes, introducing muted trumpet, strings, accordion, and subtle Latin percussion before expanding into a full-throated longing declaration of love. It’s stunning in its expansiveness; Morricone meets Spector.
The great Flaco Jiménez, whose accordion helmed the Mavericks’ highest-charting country single, “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” returns here for one of the two songs associated with Mexico, Juan Gabriel’s “No Vale la Pena” (translation, “It’s Not Really Worth It”).
It’s a testament to Malo’s gift as both a writer and listener that his originals stand confidently alongside the combination of traditional and classic Spanish tunes contained on En Español. From the swaying drama of “Recuerdos” (“Memories”) to the lively “Poder Vivir” (“To Live”), each original sounds as if It can confidently join the ranks of the greats.
Ultimately, En Español is a celebration of the diverse musical landscape of Latin America and The Mavericks’ place in it. It’s also a high-water mark for a band that has spent the last few years finding new avenues to explore. Even if you’re not fluent in Spanish, the rhythms, phrasing, and melodies contained on En Español are universal. At 30-plus years into their career, The Mavericks, much to our benefit, sound as if they’re having the time of their lives.