Recording of March 1998: Trampoline

MCA MCAD-70018A (HDCD). 1998. Raul Malo, Don Cook, prods. AAD? TT: 57:50
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Once upon a time there was a band from South Florida who wore cowboy garb and had a singer of Cuban ancestry who sounded a lot like Roy Orbison. Soon the big boys from Nashville came down and signed this band up. Everyone was so happy—this li'l ol' multicultural act was going up to Tennessee to squeeze into the country-music mold and make lots of money.

Trouble was, the band had a different ending to their fairy tale in mind. In fact, they didn't want anything to do with anyone else's story. They wanted to tell their own, one complete with lime-green zip-up pant suits, double-necked guitars, and an album full of retro '60s lounge music. And so to this day, when mainstream country music fans (or those big brains at country radio stations) hear the words "country band," they wrinkle up their faces and hiss, "You don't mean the Mavericks, do you?"

If there's any creative freedom in Nashville today—and at times that's a big "if"—the Mavericks deserve some of the credit. Almost from the start, this quartet (Raul Malo, vocals; Robert Reynolds, bass; Paul Deakin, drums; and guitarist Nick Kane, who joined after the debut album) has had the kind of restless creativity that no one genre could ever hold. While not all of their ideas have worked, at least they've tried.

While the Mavs record in Nashville, their music and appeal range far and wide. For example, the strongest voice in favor of making Trampoline, their latest and most striking disc so far, our "Recording of the Month" was editor John Atkinson, who was quite taken with the sound of this bizarre band he'd never heard of.

Soon after they signed with MCA, the Mavericks, who'd already released a self-produced, self-titled disc on their own, recorded their debut album, From Hell to Paradise. While full of promising material, Hell was a little green and unfocused: politically oriented originals like the title cut (about Cuban refugees) or "Mr. Jones" (about the homeless) were mixed with covers of Hank Williams ("Hey Good Lookin' ") and Buck Owens ("Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)").

Their sophomore disc, What a Crying Shame, found the band changing direction. Now it was clearly the Raul Malo show. His soaring voice, controlled vibrato, and increasingly distinct rock/pop songwriting—often in collaboration with songwriting guns-for-hire Kostas or former NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson—were front and center, even though a twangy cover of Springsteen's "All That Heaven Will Allow" ended up being this disc's most memorable number.

Critically acclaimed and clearly on a collision course with being an impossible-to-classify, "between-the-cracks" kind of act—not to mention a cause célèbre in staid Nashville—the band spun out (apparently with their label's blessing) into one of the more bizarre tangents in country-music history. Malo, whose waistline had begun to expand, began to assume a sweaty Elvis-as-a-heart-attack-waiting-to-happen look. Meanwhile, guitarist Nick Kane was slithering into bright orange jumpsuits and wraparound shades.

Where their look went, their music was soon to follow. Music for All Occasions was the band's heartfelt homage to the lounge-music fad. A goof, but also the album that exposed the band to legions of new, country music-hating fans, Occasions, from its hipster liner notes by "Marty Maroon" to its shower-from-a-sprinkling-can cover art to its rendition of Sinatra's "Something Stupid," was and is a very confounding ride.

Perhaps the best thing about making a boundary-snapping record like Music for All Occasions is that, once the genie's out of the bottle, the world is your oyster. No idea for a followup would've been too bizarre. To be fair, while the concept for the last album may have been odd, the songs were not. Tunes like "Here Comes the Rain" showed that, no matter how much fun they'd had, Malo's songwriting had continued to progress.

Which brings us to the new record, Trampoline, which is striking and stylish on many fronts. Malo's voice and songwriting have taken yet another step up. On the salsafied opener "Dance the Night Away," he revisits his Cuban roots thanks to a peppy, horn-accented arrangement. With Kane's guitar leading the way, the band then hurtles down into a dramatic R&B/pop ballad mode in "Tell Me Why." On the third cut, "I Should Know" (co-written with Al Anderson), the never-far-away Orbison echoes return, this time crossed with mariachi horns set into a '50s-esque pop ditty.

And so it goes on from there. With a melody line led by the bass (a typical Mavs touch), the ballad "To Be With You" adds strings. The violins return on "I've Got This Feeling," whose triumphant, marchy chorus sounds like it was copped from Neil Diamond. And then there's the smoky, torchy "Fool #1," which Malo slinks through as if he was born to the stuff. A sitar makes an appearance on the funky "I Hope You Want Me Too." The instrumental "Melbourne Mambo" is organ- and trumpet-heavy island music. "Dolores" is flapper jazz, complete with a sassy clarinet. And what record would be complete without a rousing gospel number like "Say a Prayer"?

There's not a single fiddle, steel guitar, or banjo to be heard here. Needless to say, if you know any dyed-in-the-wool Garth lemmings—or, better yet, anyone in the country-radio biz—playing this album for them could prove fatal. Those without imaginations shouldn't attempt to drive or operate heavy machinery while listening. A heartfelt bow is due MCA/Nashville for their good taste and sense of adventure.

While all this may sound like a stylistic mish-mash, the unifying threads are Malo's voice, his absolutely astonishing songwriting range, and the band's easy, instinctual chemistry. The Mavericks' style is now whatever they feel. If they want a certain sound, they play it—which, if you've ever played music, you know means that both their chops and their aesthetic are unbelievably comprehensive. While a lot of people pay lip service to the idea of playing in many different styles, few ever try, let alone pull it off with the panche and soul that the Mavs show on Trampoline. This HDCD disc has enormous warmth and presence. There simply aren't many records like it.—Robert Baird

cymbalclash's picture

This recording is sonic excellence: it's like being there. And the music is easy-going and upbeat, easy listening. Excellent blending of the various musical intruments. I almost feel like I'm back in school.