Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
I was stressing about my review of Mono, the new album by the Mavericks. Each time I tried to write about it, the tone quickly took on characteristics of a mid-’70s Billboard magazine puff piece about Any Band — I’m not positive that I can recall anything remotely negative in the pages of that magazine when I read it as a youth.
Surely as warm and personal an album as Mono deserved better. But I couldn’t come up with any really exciting new adjectives to apply to the new work of the veteran band, so I shoved the review aside for a few days and instead just listened to the damn record.
And I remembered the brief but relevant liner notes to Beck-Ola, the Jeff Beck Group album from 1969, which stated, “Today, with all the hard competition in the music business, it’s almost impossible to come up with anything totally original. So we haven’t.” The notes end up asking the listener to “sit back and listen and try and decide if you can find a small place in your heads for it.”
What I came to conclude about this album is that the Mavericks didn’t intend to reinvent the wheel with Mono. Theirs is a comfortable mix of great songs, strong musicianship and the bravado and tenderness of lead singer and songwriter Raul Malo. The energy, gravity and tight, sharp turns of this record make listening and movement inseparable, involuntary, like a record by NRBQ or the Subdudes. It’s what they’ve done all along, to the extent that they won a Grammy almost 20 years ago for sounding the way they do. Mono is really a seamless continuation of their signature sound that just happens to be recorded in glorious monophonic this time, and it’s a fine representation of a worthy band.
Because what would radio do with lyrics like these?
“After you walked in all the lights went dim
And the music played all night I may exaggerate,
but that’s what you are to me.”
When I did an internet search for the Mavericks, they came up under “mainstream country” at one online retailer, which made me smile, recalling a time when they and Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash were on the charts and earning Grammy awards with what looked and sounded like mainstream country moving forward and up. Those days are gone, but all three of those artists are still making uncompromisingly honest and personal records which languish in critics’ year-end top-ten lists. They sell a fraction of what the big-dollar, bro-country mutant descendants move. “Mainstream country” listeners’ needs in 2015 are served differently; the blues and sweet steel of an Emmylou Harris song are now sought in the cheap beer and six-string banjo of a Toby Keith anthem. So it goes.
If releasing Mono was not designed specifically to vault the Mavs back up the charts (although we would love that), then it stands proudly as a testament to the band’s dedication to making new music for their fans. This record offers classic beauty within its many melodies, and it sounds like a band playing and singing its all. Paul Deakin is an articulate drummer who benefits from the massive production here, thanks to Malo and longtime co-producer Niko Bolas, who like their drums LOUD. Deakin comes in about eight bars into the intro to “All Night Long,” which opens Mono, bringing an enormous ramp-up in intensity that burns through each pass of the gang chorus. After taking a break only in a dramatic passage sung in Spanish, Deakin returns, reprising his entry with two fierce blasts of the snare.
Eddie Perez contributes economical, stylish guitar figures; his playing on “Out the Door” is sensational. And Jerry Dale McFadden’s combo organ stylings make me want to strap on a pair of roller skates in “When I’m with You” — he’s a superb player, the last to join the Mavericks but long associated with them on the road and in the recording studio. (McFadden also co-authored with Malo the elegant ballad “Fascinate Me” which closes the album proper.) Long-time band adjuncts Michael Guerra on accordion, Max Abrams on sax, Paul Armstrong on trumpet and Jay Weaver on upright bass and tuba bring versatile colors and even whimsy to the arrangements. There’s salsa, big fat rhythm and blues, Tejano and ska everywhere you look. It all works. There’s even a fun cover of Doug Sahm’s “Nitty Gritty.” Somewhere near the center of it all is the gorgeous “Let It Rain (On Me).” This song drew me in close with its woeful refrain, sung with majestic restraint by Malo and reinforced with an acoustic rhythm guitar, celeste, saxes and accordion. “I will do my part to never let them see/Before the teardrops start, let it rain on me.” Genre-jumping and musical time travel have never sounded so fun.
It sounds like it was fun for the musicians, too, although the firing of founder-bassist Robert Reynolds in October 2014 must have left a heavy emotional imprint; Reynolds’ contribution to Mono is a solitary acoustic guitar track, reflecting his ever-reduced participation in the band’s live shows.
It’s Raul Malo’s tenor that ties the Mavericks’ instrumental shape-shifting together smoothly. His is one of the most attractive voices recording today; he is at home with any tempo or style of song, which is good since he’s such a diverse songwriter. That makes listening to the Mavericks a supreme pleasure for me, because it’s the rarest of singers who catches my ear with the breadth of emotion that Raul Malo brings.
There are plenty of artists who want to stay on some sort of hypothetical cutting edge of popular culture. Their existence seems to depend on whether they can maintain that achievement, and it requires a certain amount of pandering. More beer, more tailgates, more drunk. It’s doubtful they’ll hear Mono by the Mavericks as the success I do or understand why “timeless” is a more satisfying end-product for many listeners. It’s worked for them for years, so why not just enjoy it?