Raul Malo

Today (Omtown/Higher Octave)

It's fitting that Raul Malo's first solo album kicks off with a whirlwind hybrid of a song, blending salsa figures with calypso horns, English-language lyrics, a chorus drawn from Beatles-era Top 40 hits, and a pumped-up carnival atmosphere raucous enough to swallow the rest of Today. But Malo's huge, emotive voice holds its own whether he's applying heart to sleeve on "Every Little Thing About You," or keeping the party at full swing on "Ya Tu Verás." Despite a slick polish that can be a bit too shiny at times, the disc's songwriting and punchy arrangements wield so much charisma and pop-history savvy that even the most obvious hooks hooked me.

Malo is best known in country music circles for his work with cowboy cult band the Mavericks, but Latin- and world-music aficionados celebrate his participation in two Los Super Seven discs. Today is markedly different from fellow Super Seven alumnus Rick Trevino's solo project, Mi Son, which softened the edgy Latin excursions of the semi-supergroup's Canto while still eschewing mainstream appeal. Though there's a rootsy foundation to almost every song on Today via Cuban, Brazilian, Mexican and other Latin influences, the overall sound is as huge as it is hugely commercial. That means instead of the unresolved tension of the finest songs on Canto, we get mini-operas that ebb and flow in radio-friendly lengths molded by emotions so familiar we could pick our way through the peaks and valleys on a moonless night.

While commercial formats have undermined many pop artists, they have defined an even greater number. Inspired by the norteño music he listened to as a boy, Roy Orbison perfected lofty melodramatic vocals reined in from excess by a genius for songcraft. Orbison's spiritual brother Tim Buckley pushed the concept of voice as instrument well past commercially accepted limits. Both performers haunt Today: Orbison's soaring tenor usually crops up in choruses, while Buckley-esque angst bleeds all over the slower sections. "Are We Almost There?" is one of the most commercial songs on the disc, but also one of the best, leading with the tremolo-laden Twin Peaksalto guitar line reminiscent of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" and a deer-in-the-headlights vocal etched with Buckley's eerie phrasings that are loath to let go of a word without wringing out every last shade of meaning. A classic pop structure that includes a chorus so simple it stops just short of simplemindedness makes the cut instantly memorable and surprisingly resonant.

With equal aplomb, Malo mines Latin material via swelling orchestral arrangements from Alberto Salas, who apparently is too busy to dazzle us much with his furious piano work, which helped make Canto arresting. Even when the strings and horns suggest a Las Vegas extravaganza, tough rhythmic underpinning and exquisite solos maintain the knife's edge. "No Me Preguntes Tanto" starts off slight but overblown, until Luis Eric Gonzalez's trumpet snaps in. "Ya Tu Verás" similarly seems like a throwaway with its bossa nova influenced "ba-ba-ba-baa" choral dips, but Salas' churning piano and a searing Richard Egues-style flute excursion burn off the dippiness. And if that ain't enough, Ruben Estrada whips Malo into a frenzy with an unexpected timbales explosion. Every cut references Latin genres in some fashion -- and does so beautifully. I'm already hearing a couple of the Anglo-friendliest songs on a world-music radio program, and if there's any justice, Latin stations will lean on the Spanish-language material. This is one commercial release that straddles two cultures without shortchanging either.

 
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