Review: Raul Malo – Sinners & Saints (Fantasy, 2010)
After spending the better part of the last decade edging away from the sounds of the Mavericks, Malo began to find his way back from cover songs and supper club countrypolitan with last year’s genre-bending Lucky One. Here he takes an even more personal step, producing himself in a home studio and finishing off the tracks in Ray Benson’s Austin-based Bismeaux Studios. Malo reconnects with the upbeat Tex-Mex (or really, Cuban-Country) and gripping balladry that made his earlier work so arresting; the relaxed tempos and too-neat productions that failed to spark After Hours are counted off here with verve, and the arrangements are given soulful edges that match Malo’s deeply emotional vocals.
The balance weighs making music from the heart over production perfection, as evident on a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “’Til I Gain Control Again.” Sung in a complete take, Malo aptly describes the recording as “not perfect, but the emotion is there.” If it’s not technically perfect, Malo’s probably the only one who could point out the problems, and singing with the dynamism Waylon Jennings brought to his earlier cover, it’s hard to imagine the words being put across any better. Just as effective is the Spanish-language “Sombras,” with Malo pledging no less than his life to prove his love, and the drowsy “Matter Much to You” builds tension by hesitating to make the operatic Roy Orbison leap you might expect.
Cuban roots open the album with a lonely trumpet that beckons a bullfighter into the ring, but before the toreador appears, Malo’s organ and guitar add surf twang and spaghetti western mystery. Augie Meyers’ classic Vox Continental appears on several tracks, adding the texture and tone of the Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados; the latter guest on “Superstar,” with Michael Guerra’s accordion casting a truly incredible spell. The rock ‘n’ soul of “Living For Today” suggests Delaney and Bonnie, but with the seeds sewn in the Nixon era watered by decades of American imperialism the lyrics have sprouted into mortal fatalism and the politically charged feeling that “we tried givin’ peace a chance / the only thing that’s wrong with that / we been at war since I was born.”
The original “Staying Here” sounds like something Elvis might have cut on his triumphant late-60s return to recording in Memphis. Malo plays everything on this track but the lead organ, but you’d be hard-pressed to know this was a one-man overdubbing band if you didn’t look at the credits – he’s that good at drums, bass, guitar, Mellotron and even tambourine; his voice is so fetching that it’s easy to forget his talents as an instrumentalist. Malo’s new songs are complemented by a cover of Los Lobos’ “Saint Behind the Glass,” further demonstrating that the contained form of his previous lounge material may have been an interesting singer’s exercise, but the expansive soul of these performances is the greater listener’s joy.