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 Cantwell
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. (***)
-- Hobart Rowland
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.
Katy-based melodic metal heroes King's X may be the most beautiful losers on the planet. Through 17 years and seven albums together, guitarist Ty Tabor, bassist Doug Pinnick and drummer Jerry Gaskill have refined and reinvented their smooth, progressive rock, examining love, life and the afterlife with rapturous joy and searching doubt. Critics have mostly thrown bouquets their way, and the band's fervent worldwide fan base has increased with each new offering. Yet King's X still remains trapped in an odd bubble of obscurity, largely unheard by the music-buying masses.
Tabor has written many of the band's singles -- "Goldilox," "Summerland" and "Black Flag" -- and the subtle merging of hook-laden pop, psychedelia and metal found on the new Moonflower Lane makes a strong bid for a mainstream listenership. This is technically the guitarist's second solo album, but it actually consists of only four new cuts, plus six reworked songs that first appeared on Naomi's Solar Pumpkin, a limited-edition independent CD Tabor released via the Internet in July 1997. Alan Doss of Galactic Cowboys is the key sideman here, playing drums throughout, and sharing organ and percussion duties with Tabor. Guests with more limited roles include the Cowboys' Monty Colvin and Atomic Opera's Ben Huggins on background vocals, cellist Frank Hart, and Tabor's teenage son Josh on French horn.
But Tabor is the main ingredient, producing and playing almost everything himself. Because of that, his recurrent lyrical themes of love, faith, summer and sensory overload are all in attendance, along with his signature Beatles/Badfinger influences and the usual incisive, minor-chord revelations about Christianity. The ebullient opener, "I Do," is an energized, life-affirming celebration of good fortune set to a lilting pop waltz; "Live in Your House" is one of many ethereal spiritual tunes about keeping one's eyes on the heavenly prize amid the conflicts and distractions of earth.
For those who can't stomach happy metal, there's "The Truth," with talkative drums and multilayered harmonies augmenting Tabor's skewering of what he terms "Church of the Hair" televangelists. Tabor also examines the dank corners of human existence and the trap of a wholly inner life on "The Island Sea," singing, "Inside my window, I imagine I'm a man / And I am free / And I am cool, and I'm not me / The needle doesn't hurt, it doesn't kill / It doesn't steal / It doesn't feel, and I don't bleed."
Those fans expecting to hear Tabor's customary supersonic guitar noodling may be disappointed, but his fluid, expressionist playing is exceptional at any volume. He's never been comfortable with the hard-rock guitar-god tag anyway, and though he does burn a few good solos here, Moonflower Lane makes a case for tranquility as the key to enlightenment. (****)
-- Robin Myrick
Stupid Stupid Stupid
Stupid Stupid Stupid is the kind of release that sounds best halfway through a party, when revelers have had enough alcohol or other chemicals to let loose their inhibitions and go with the flow. It's at that hazy moment when the up-tempo, funky, mindless dance music featured here works its magic. Merging sweet soul horns, chant-along choruses, '70s keyboard noodling and disco-inspired bass lines, British bad boys Black Grape have created a buoyant, jumbled pastiche perfect for long nights of drinking, drugging and overall hell-raising.
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The band is headed by Shaun Ryder, whose criminal past was behind U.S. immigration officials' ultimately unsuccessful attempts to keep Black Grape out of this country. There has to be a certain amount of credibility at stake here. Rick James, after all, made good party albums for a reason: He experienced everything he promoted. And so, since drugs are abhorred by the same institutions that stalled the band's overseas progress, Ryder wastes no time in ridiculing America on "Get Higher," Stupid's opening track. Over a swirling funk backbeat, a Ronald Reagan sound-alike reels off outlandish statements like, "Nancy and I are hooked on heroin." Not especially funny, considering that old Ron has been out of office for a decade.
Thankfully, that dated misstep doesn't weigh heavily on the rest of Stupid, which effortlessly intermingles classic soul sweat with modern dance beats. Like a wannabe mixed-race Funkadelic, Grape attempts epic soundtracks pinned to the almighty groove, designed (with a little synthetic enhancement) to free the mind so the ass will follow. Though Stupid is hardly destined for greatness, its real worth is dependent on a specific time and place: that crucial window of nightclub debauchery when it seems the buzz will never end. The morning after, though, is another matter. (** 1/2)
-- David Simutis