“That voice!” I had just posted the newly released video of “La Sitiera” from The Mavericks’ new album En Español on one of the forums I visited that day, and this was the reply that stood out to me.
That has stuck in my head ever since. Not because it was any new revelation to me, but that even a music lover not familiar with The Mavericks and especially the soaring tenor voice of Raul Malo immediately recognized one of the strengths of the band, which celebrates its 31st anniversary with its latest album, En Español.
As the title promises, En Español is an album recorded entirely in Spanish. Such an album seems unlikely from what started as a Miami-based country band that racked up a string of top 40 country hits, beginning with the hit record “What A Crying Shame” and culminating in perhaps their most popular song: “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” which features Tejano legend Flaco Jimenez guesting on accordion. Starting with their following album Trampoline, the Mavs would bump up the Latin music influences with each new release, demonstrating how the flexibility of the band and Raul Malo’s musical vision refused to keep them pigeonholed in the narrow confines of Nashville’s predominantly country music leanings.
After a run of albums, the band went on hiatus (with a brief regrouping in 2003). Malo released a series of solo records that further stretched his musical interests, and took part in other projects such as Los Super Seven. Upon regrouping in the early 2010s, The Mavericks made up for lost time with the In Time album, a reintroduction to the band that showed them at the top of their game. They would then release a string of themed albums that combined and expanded upon their wide-ranging interests. Mono was a pop music recording mixed and mastered in monaural. Brand New Day touched on a few topical subjects such as equality (the title track), the joys of marijuana (the delightful Tejano-flavored “Rolling Along”), and a Cuban-influenced jab at current events with “Easy as It Seems.” Hey! Merry Christmas serves up some wonderful new holiday tracks along with two covers of familiar tunes.
Their 2019 album, Play the Hits, gathers up cleverly arranged cover tunes that influenced the band throughout their career. Changing things up and avoiding familiar rehashes of these familiar songs, Malo and company turn Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” into a lazy horn-driven shuffle with some Duane Eddy guitar seasoning, add a Tejano flavor to the Patty Loveless hit “Blame It on Your Heart,” and update the old Dale and Grace chestnut “I’m Leaving It Up to You.” In addition to a reverent cover of the Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells tune “Once Upon A Time” as a duet with Martina McBride, Raul brings the house down with his heart-on-the-sleeve rendition of Freddie Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” accompanied only by guitar and accordion.
That same restless musical spirit and wide variety of song choices manifests itself with this latest album, En Español. According to Malo, this is an album he has wanted to make with The Mavericks for quite some time. Granted, his voice is so front and center on this album that you might mistake it for one of his solo recordings. Yet you could not ask for any better band behind him than The Mavericks, and he envisioned this album with the band in mind. Not only is there the familiarity of their trademark sound behind him, the band members are flexible and open-minded enough that they are the perfect ensemble to back el maestro on this outstanding set.
The idea for an all-Spanish album was in the works for years, but the seeds began to grow in earnest when Malo, a first generation Cuban-American whose parents left Cuba around 1960, was the subject of the PBS production “Havana Time Machine,” where he visits Cuba for the first time. He performs with local musicians, meets the members of the Cuban rock band Sweet Lizzy Project (who he would later assist in bringing to the US and mentor), and performs with The Mavericks. Following that, the idea blossomed and grew into what became this album.
Not content to make this an all-Mariachi, all-Salsa, all-Cuban or all-Tejano album, Malo manages to touch on many varieties of Latin American and Cuban music throughout the album. The stunning cinematic opening track sets the tone for the set, the grand arrangement a far cry from the version waxed by Cuban bandleader and singer Abelardo Barroso decades ago. Likewise, the album’s playful closer, “Me Voy a Pinar del Rio,” dates back to a 1956 recording by Cuban singer Celia Cruz with the group Sonora Matancera.
Two other tunes I’ve known for most of my life are “Sabor a Mí” and “Cuando Me Enamoro.” The former, composed by Mexican singer and composer Alvaro Carrillo, was originally popularized by Trio Los Panchos with Eydie Gormé, with Mexican singer Luis Miguel making a hit out of it again in 1997. The latter was originally written in Italian (as “Quando M’Innamoro”) and sung by Italian singer Anna Identici as well as the American vocal group The Sandpipers (where I first heard it), but has been covered in many languages over the years; the most popular English rendering is likely Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love.”
Somewhat newer, “Me Olvide de Vivir” is a tune that touches closer to the heart – originally sung by Julio Iglesias, the tune was a favorite of Malo’s grandfather, and was played often around the household. It is another of those freely-flowing tunes that has a cinematic feel with Raul’s soaring tenor and a touch of strings.
Among these and other classic tunes, Malo co-composed five new tunes with collaborator Alejandro Menendez Vega who assisted with the Spanish lyrics, making use of an old Argentinian rhyming dictionary to help with the verses. One of the new songs, “Suspiro Azul,” was also co-composed with Lisset Diaz and Miguel Comas of Sweet Lizzy Project. These new tunes fit the rest of the album perfectly, thanks to the touches the band applies to these tracks. The originals “Poder Vivir” and “Recuerdos” were the first two single releases from the album; the latter adds a nod to Mongo Santamaria’s “Sofrito” in its coda.
One great thing about this album is that even if you don’t know a single word of Spanish, the album is welcoming and listenable. The band members’ considerable talent and familiarity with each other make the presentation a very cohesive whole – their chameleon-like ability to adapt to any of the musical styles presented here, yet still sound only like The Mavericks, is commendable. Co-founding member Paul Deakin still keeps up a reliable backbone on the drum kit, and longtime keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden provides supple keyboard lines throughout. Guitarist Eddie Perez, who joined circa 2003, doesn’t get a chance to shred here, but becomes an essential supporting musician in the fabric that the band provides behind Malo’s vocals. Kudos to the rest of the Mavericks band for their contributions as well!
Don’t let a simple thing like a language barrier get in the way of enjoying this excellent album. Beautifully performed and executed, it is one of this year’s best albums. Apparently, the music-buying public agrees – it debuted at number one on the Billboard Latin Pop chart. Not a bad accomplishment for a band that started playing country music over three decades ago in Miami!
The album is available in CD and download versions (you can get the hi-res version from Qobuz), and on two 2-LP variations – a standard black, or a marbled blue vinyl version available only from local record stores. The limited edition signed version pictured here, pressed on blue/pink/black splatter vinyl, sold out quickly. The album’s packaging includes English translations of the lyrics.
A Brief Public Service Message:
The Mavericks and Raul Malo have been active on social media, promoting themselves and the band as often as possible. Malo has even released a long-running series of “Quarantunes” ranging from solo pieces recorded in his Nashville home to studio productions featuring The Mavericks. Via Nugs.TV, they have so far hosted two one-hour video on demand presentations. With all this and the new album, they have kept interest up and, despite these challenging times, were still able to produce an album for us.
Unfortunately, they cannot tour for En Español this year – any “live” performances are being done in-studio without an audience. The lack of touring this year has pinched The Mavericks and every other band and artist out there who depends on touring. Even more disturbing is that the support staff – the roadies and truck drivers, the tour managers and engineers, instrument technicians and personal assistants – have had no work at all during this pandemic. Being such a specialized field, these are not jobs that are easily replaced by changing employers.
By supporting your favorite bands and artists during these difficult times, you can help ensure that when they return to the road, they will be able to rebound that much faster when they are able to bring their music to your towns. What really helps is if you buy directly from their own sites – the profits from the sale go directly to the band. It might cost a few dollars more, but it’s well worth it, don’t you think?
Images courtesy of The Mavericks' management.