By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Mavericks lead singer/songwriter Raul Malo has always harbored ambition as soaring as his gorgeous voice. But for him and his band, the focus of those ambitions is constantly shifting.
On their major-label debut, 1990's From Hell to Paradise, Malo possessed the unfettered ambition to write Bakersfield honky-tonk vignettes that were also anthems of race and class. But on the follow-up, What a Crying Shame, he abandoned social concern to focus solely on heartbreak and country-radio airplay, streamlining his songs with assistance from Kostas, Nashville's King of the Dumbed-Down Lyric. Then, despite four hit singles, the Mavericks' third release, Music for All Occasions, shifted gears once again, offering a loungey experiment that came off too emotionally cool for its own good.
Still, even allowing for the missteps, the fascinating thing about the Mavericks is the way their music always tries to do it all, and the way it always keeps you suspecting that, on the next song or maybe the next, they might actually pull it off. Indeed, the band's latest, Trampoline, comes damn close to pulling it off, as it practically blankets the retro-pop spectrum. "I Don't Even Know Her Name" is shimmering British Invasion pop; "Tell Me Why" sounds like a brassy blast of early-'70s B.B. King; "Melbourne Mambo" provides a worthy forum for Malo to pay homage to his Cuban heritage; and "To Be with You" is a fine example of the updated country traditionalism that has earned the group a place on the airwaves. Of all the stylistic ground covered here, only the campy "Dolores" -- done Rudy Vallee-into-the-megaphone style -- fails to charm.
Amid all this bouncing around, Trampoline's only constant remains Malo's near-operatic tenor, a gift that regularly and understandably draws comparisons to Roy Orbison. On Trampoline, though, the similarities aren't as obvious as in the past. The torchy "Fool #1" actually purrs along more like the Orbison-influenced k.d. lang than like the source himself. Admittedly, "I've Got This Feeling" reverses an old Orbison lyrical tactic (instead of feeling paranoid, Malo assumes the best from far too little evidence), but the intense performance and gloriously huge arrangement suggest the sound of '70s Elvis.
In fact, there's quite a bit of Presley's influence spread throughout Trampoline; you hear it in Malo's phrasing and inflection and, especially, in the Southern gospel stomp "Save a Prayer." And that makes sense. Like Elvis, the Mavericks make music that is great, in part, because it is so ambitious; it wants to do it all and is never afraid to try. (****)
David Garza is Austin's complex kid -- except that he's not really a kid anymore, as this fitfully mature major-label debut suggests on more than one occasion. Largely, This Euphoria's bourgeois-sophisticate trappings serve Garza well as he flirts, fumbles and finagles his way through the picked-over rock and roll trash heap like a vagabond Ritchie Valens striving to recover his roots. The results are sometimes silly, sometimes profound. But rarely are they ever less than interesting.
Granted, there are times when the enigmatic, well-intentioned singer/guitarist's quirky endearments are undercut by This Euphoria's self-conscious efforts to sound current -- in essence, neutering his simple and impulsive sense of aesthetics. But when Garza is on, he is an assimilative pop chameleon of the first order. And it's difficult for anything -- even Euphoria's frequently cluttered production tactics -- to dilute his plucky romanticism. Through Garza's rose-colored glasses, music is art is scripture, with everything as disposable as it is everlasting.
That said, This Euphoria is noticeably less heavenly than The 4-Track Manifesto, the self-released EP Garza threw out as bait a few months back while Lava/Atlantic was putting the finishing touches on the full-length CD. It's uncertain whether that fantastic homemade effort may work against the somewhat patchy Euphoria. As if guarding against just such backlash, two of the best Manifesto tracks -- "Discoball World" and "Float Away" -- also appear on Euphoria. A wise decision was made not to alter Garza's original version of the former, seeing as it's impossible to improve on perfection. An exhilarating marriage of lo-fi kitsch (a rinky-dink Casio beat, megaphonic lead vocals, a super-compressed mix) and high-caliber melody, "Discoball World" was chosen as the first single for good reason. On a more sour note, however, the once-gorgeous "Float Away" is the unfortunate recipient of a hefty studio makeover (fat drums, unneeded metal-guitar raunch) that robs it of its effervescent intimacy.
That pretty much sets the tone for This Euphoria; that is to say, the less messing around with Garza's giddy, agro-pop strengths, the better. Judging from the sonically overwrought "Baptiste" and the tedious, Ugly Americana funk of "Glow in the Dark," Garza is still learning how to be his own editor; he's less a fully formed genius than an intriguing work in progress. But, hey, we knew that all along. (***)
David Garza performs Thursday, April 9, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Special 7:30 p.m. show; tickets available only with the purchase of This Euphoria at Cactus Music and Video.