Monday, March 2, 2015

album review: 'mono' by the mavericks

So let's talk about comebacks again.

I've talked a bit before about artists managing to revive their careers thanks to diehard fanbases, critical attention, or simply stepping into the right place at the right time - one of the reasons Sleater-Kinney's No Cities To Love did as well as it did this year, on top of just being awesome. But Sleater-Kinney wasn't just a great band, they were responsible for shaping that particular brand of feminist punk rock for years to come, and you could argue their influence runs pretty deep.

The Mavericks, on the other hand... okay, who was expecting this comeback to work? For those of you who don't know, The Mavericks were a neotraditional country act that came up in the mid-90s that I'd describe as midway between Alabama and Lonestar - not quite as rollicking or twangy, but not the slick pop country that would define Lonestar successful years in the late 90s and early 2000s. They charted a few modest hits, but were never massive hitmakers with anything that hit the top 10, or made music that I'd describe as essential of the era. Hell, on some of their singles I'd have a hard time describing them as a neotraditional country act, which might have been their problem getting hits - they were too polished for most country with the ska-like horns, clean adult contemporary production, Raul Malo's rich baritenor, doofy yacht rock vibe, and tendency for covering Elvis and Cat Stevens. It's no surprise that 'All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down' is their biggest country hit and the only one I recognized at all on first listen - and they still managed to find a way to wedge an accordion solo into it! So after breaking up, I had no reason to care about The Mavericks, putting them in the same historical footnote as I put similar 90s neotraditional acts that never really caught on - yes, I know they had a Grammy, ask Marc Cohn or Debby Boone how much those matter for one's long-term career.

But then they came back with In Time in 2013... and really, it was like they never left. The horns, the accordion, the eclectic country of The Mavericks only seemed to really change and evolve in the thicker grooves and picking up more texture, which was a welcome shift. But despite the waves of critical acclaim the record got, I was a little more lukewarm on it - I got the old-fashioned flavour to the vocals and songwriting, but to me it always felt a little staged and kitschy - not bad by any stretch, let me stress this, but a little broad. But then again, the band seemed to be committed to pushing their sound even further, so I made sure to check out their newest album Mono - how did that turn out?

Well, it fits into a bit of a weird category, in that it's a prime example of a subject I've wanted to discuss now for a while, and simultaneously not giving me a lot to really talk about. But putting aside that topic... the record is alright. It's not bad, it's not great, it is a step down from In Time, but it's not so much of one that it's unlistenable or a departure in sound. In fact, the best way to describe this album is that it's a vintage Mavericks record.

And when I say vintage, I don't just mean that the traditional country crossed with eclectic instrumentation of The Mavericks is present, but that the recording and production of this record is extremely reminiscent of 50s and 60s country and pop, at least before the era of psychedelia kicked in. It's not so much lo-fi as the mix just has a warm grain to it that reflects analog recording - which makes sense, considering they titled the album Mono. And really, that production style doesn't just inform the instrumentation, but everything else about the record from the vocal style of Raul Malo to the songwriting. And if you have a taste for that brand of traditional country - albeit with significantly more horns that recall swing, ska, salsa, or even hints of jazz and soul - you'll probably find this record old-fashioned, but very charming. 

But when you get past that and start looking beyond into what really makes up this album... well, there's not a lot. Let's start with the instrumentation, which is melodic and agreeable, but the lack of thicker grooves, stronger basslines, or even more distinctive change-ups beyond the traditional formula really does make this record start to blur together. At least In Time went for some meatier crunch with Latin guitar lines and some real snarl - this record doesn't have as much of that, and it can make some songs start to run together. Part of this, ironically, is an issue of the production - simply put, that grainy technique applied to horn lines and other mid-range instruments can mean you lose some of the subtler moments - it works well for accordion or organ, but when you have thicker brass, a cleaner recording might have picked up better. Granted, this album is not subtle in the slightest across the board, but in cultivating the atmosphere it can lose uniqueness between tracks. Not going to lie, outside of some of the more subdued, quiet moments, a lot of this record blurs together for me, and while it's agreeable, it's not exactly unique. It doesn't help matters that the acoustic texture isn't as prominent - this is a concern I've had about indie country ever since Sturgill Simpson became popular, in that they'd adopt his rougher recording style without picking up the details, and while Dave Cobb is a genius, the thicker reverb and almost smeared over style doesn't pick up the same pluck or groove. 

This takes us to the vocals - and look, Raul Malo is a fantastic singer. Great range, a ton of charisma, huge pipes, a liquid smooth delivery, the guy has the sort of old-school presence and charm that came with performers of the era. And I respect him for always including the band in praise that might initially be directed only at him - but the more I listened through this album, he came across as very broad. He has a lot of power and expression, but not a huge dramatic range, which means his songs can be theatrical but lacking emotive punch for me - mostly because it is so smooth and powerful. There's little to no grit in his delivery - which might fit the style, sure, but it doesn't really fit when you have ska, jazz, and swing influences that demand a little smolder.

And all of this could be redeemed if the songwriting was top-notch... and it's not. This has been an issue with The Mavericks since the beginning, and decades after their heyday, it's still an issue. And it's not that they're bad writers, but the songs are very simply sketched in terms of lyrics. There's not a lot of details, there's not a lot of storytelling, the metaphors are very basic - as the pop music was of that time. As such, they don't opt for a lot of complicated framing or more humanizing moments - which only makes Raul Malo seem even more broadly sketched. It's why easily the worst song on this album is the dumping song 'Out The Door', where a bad relationship is being cast aside probably for good reasons, and yet we're still expected to sympathize with our singer because he's still going to be upset when she leaves. And while that's human to feel, it's not played with the melancholy or dimension you'd get from, say, Meat Loaf's 'Two Outta Three Ain't Bad' - it's just played too broad and doofy. In fact, Meat Loaf is a surprisingly apt comparison - both he and Raul Malo are big, powerful singers with eclectic instrumentation that calls back to the past - but at his best, Meat Loaf had Jim Steinman to add nuance and subversive elements. The Mavericks don't have that, which means a lot of the actual lyricism on this album - which is competently written, let me stress this - ends up being rather forgettable or cliched. 

In other words, Mono is the definition of a retro throwback, and not even to the era when the Mavericks had their most success - and if you like that sound and style of songwriting with more of a ska twist, you'll like this album. But I don't think you'll really love it, and that's because beyond effectively replicating that sound, it doesn't do much beyond it. It's broad and pretty fun - it probably could have afforded to take itself less seriously - but it doesn't land a lot of impact with me because not only have I heard this done decades ago, but done better, with tighter hooks and writing. Granted, i can definitely see the audience for this album, so while for me it's a 6/10, I'm definitely recommending it if you're a fan of traditional country or even vintage rockability or early ska. Otherwise, I can say the same thing about Mono that I say about every Mavericks record - you will not hear anything else quite like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment